For perhaps the fifth year (or maybe it’s the sixth) I find myself going through ramadan. Well, not exactly ramadan, as I am an atheist (though not irreligious), but I co-opt the month to do my own sort of spiritual and physical discipline (for the same reason I have tried Lent before). During this period I fast during daylight hours, allowing myself only a banana and a piece of chocolate before 6am if I have asageiko on that day, otherwise I eat no food until 7pm-ish, or around about whatever time the sun sets. If I have keiko in the evening it means I may not sit down to eat until after 9pm. As I may do anything from one to three keiko sessions some of these days, I do allow myself to drink water or maybe a cup of black coffee. Even though it’s not ramadan proper, I do believe it still serves as a spiritual exercise meant to better me as a person. This is, to me, an important part of my personal shugyo, of which budo is a part.
Shugyo is a term you here a lot in kendo circles in Japan, sometimes with a wry smile or a chuckle, because most don’t actually go out of their way to do what’s perceived to be (probably rightly!) unneeded hardship. Younger kenshi will often go through very hard physical training, but that’s almost always because they are forced to do so by their teacher, not through volunteering. I’m sure any older raised-in-Japan kenshi you know has regaled you of stories of their high school days! Spiritual discipline is often an unconscious by-product of this process, even if will and intention are missing on the students side (as a teacher, I hope to instil it).
For me personally, I didn’t see the shugyo aspect of kendo until my early 30s when I started teaching at a high school club. It was through practising with the students day-by-day and year-by-year, that I finally started to feel a depth for, a … sense of the flavour of (I’m translating from Japanese here as I can’t think of an appropriate English word!) spiritual discipline. I also noted that most other kendo teachers practised less and worked at improving more casually than their students. In other words, they believed their kendo was somewhat “complete.” I, however, was (am) far from satisfied.
Just under a year and half ago I published The Shugyo Spiral, which included this (dodgy!) graph by yours truly where I tried to visualise the shugyo process (see above)
Note the use of the Japanese 「修行」 for “shugyo” in the graph above. There are actually two “shugyo” kanji combinations commonly used in Japan:
These are used interchangeably by native Japanese speakers but there is, actually, an important nuance in meaning that is relevant to todays discussion. You can probably guess that the nuance lies in the second kanji, not the first, but we have to define that before moving on.
修: discipline, conduct oneself well, study, master (this kanji is often used in dojo names)
The second kanji:
行: journey (to go)
業: business, job, art performance
I think you can interpret the difference quite easily. (B) implies something that you do, and that this activity has an end or can be completed; (A) on the other hand, is a path or road travelled down that has no end or final destination.
I believe strongly that it’s both the physical and spiritual pursuit of kendo as shugyo that defines the quality of the kenshi. Of course, the balance between the physical and the spiritual aspects necessarily changes as you mature (in body and in mind). On this topic Mochida Seiji said:
Until the age of 50 you must do your upmost to study and make the basics your own. You might think that you have already mastered the basics when you were still a beginner, but this is completely wrong. There are many people who think in this wrong manner. It took 50 years for my body to acquire the basics.
When you become 70, your entire body becomes weak. At this time, I focused on keeping my spirit unmoved. If your spirit is unmoved your opponents spirit will be reflected in it. I worked to make my spirit quiet and unmoving.
I will finish ramadan a day early this year because I am embarking on a Musha Shugyo in northern Japan for a couple of days. Musha-shugyo, are valuable “tests” of ones kendo, both physically and spiritually. I am excited to go.