My good (Budo/Iaido) friend Dr. Anil Sahal has written a fantastic article that resonates to Karate just as equally as it does to (his/our) Iaido and other Japanese Martial Arts .

The article can be found on the Tozando Blog. (See below)


Are Budo and Sports Complimentary?

After training in the dojo and over a glass of beer, there are often discussions between martial artists about the relationship between budo and sport. Those who see themselves as ‘traditionalists’ express a disdain for martial arts being used in the sporting context feeling that the ego-massaging effects of winning shiny medals and titles, demeans the seriousness of an art forged in the furnace of real combat and spiritual training.

Others might suggest ‘sport martial arts’ are a means of attracting new member to our dwindling dojo and keeping the arts vibrant, alive and current. But are these opposing views really valid? Do these differing perspectives really have no overlap?

Haruna Matsuo, Iaido Hachidan. Hanshi.

The term ‘Budo’ maybe defined in many ways, ranging from the literal and physically-orientated ‘martial ways’ to a rather more convoluted, Zen-flavoured definition of ‘the way of spiritual improvement through the ways of the Japanese martial arts’ and any particular definition will be held dear to one practitioner or another, depending upon their own motivations and perspectives.

The former definition is aligned more toward ‘bujutsu’ where the physical use of weapons, bodily or otherwise, is the central theme and ‘combat effectiveness’, the ultimate goal. The latter definition points directly to the Zen-suffused idea that through physical and mental discipline, through the attempt of direct perfection and absorption of the techniques of the martial ways, one is able lift one’s consciousness and allow the practitioner to pass through the gates of non-duality, bringing new and permanent perspectives on reality, much in the same manner as Zazen.   Both of these definitions have the connotation of a long-term ‘inner endeavour’, one in which one may transcend the self, one’s ego, such that spiritual emancipation can be achieved.

Nishiyama Hidetaka, Karate-Do Judan, Saiko Shihan.

Sport, on the other hand, is variously defined as, ‘an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.’ Thus a baseball player will spend many hours swinging their bat at awkwardly pitched balls, throwing, running and sliding to maximise the efficiency of their motor patterns within the boundaries of the game and thus maximise the probability of beating an opposing side, win trophies, tournaments and the accolades of an adoring crowd. You may notice this is more of an ‘outer endeavour’ in which entertainment of others is the ultimate aim. Undoubtedly, there will be a subtle, inner game in pursuing a sporting pastime, but medals, trophies, monetary prizes, prestige and a place in sporting history, are sport’s long term goals. Sport feeds the ego.

Ostensibly budo and sports appear to have diametrically opposed objectives to one another, not least because elite sporting ability tends to have a limited shelf-life whereas budo tends to be practised all one’s life. Thus it might appear that budo and sports are so different that they are mutually exclusive: you may follow one path or the other but never both. But this is almost certainly not the case or indeed even possible.

When an Iaidoka practises a kata, they aim to push their performance asymptotically toward an idealised, ‘perfect’ form. This performance must of course, also be infused with intent, vigour and spice! A Kendoka practises their cutting, and footwork to produce maximum efficiency of movement and utility in the art of fencing, pushing themselves to physical and thus mental extremes. A Karateka pares away extraneous movements with many repetitions, so that a punch becomes as efficient as is possible and a kick become an efficient kick capable to inflicting much damage. But is there not, within this utilitarian practise, an outward beauty? Is this beauty something that may be appreciated and indeed enjoyed, by an audience? Can this innergame of perfection of movement, of spirit and character not be placed in a sporting context for the pleasure of others? I personally think it can. Whatever the practitioner’s motivation is in practising budo, there is no reason why these techniques, these displays of beauty infused with martial intent, cannot be used as entertainment. In the case of an aesthetic art such as Iaido, in a sporting context, these movements are aimed at an invisible enemy, leading to judge-awarded points in which one competitor shows they have not only come the closer to the model kata than the other, but have also demonstrated a ‘living performance’ with combative meaning, aggressive intent (but not aggression) and fighting spirit. When the practitioner of another art is able to apply their skills directly to an opposing competitor in competition combat and use their highly developed skills to score points relatively objectively against their adversary, the results can be dazzling, enthralling and indeed thrilling to anyone watching. They can have all the outward characteristics of a sport and still retain the inneraspects of budo in acquiring them and without any contradiction. Sometimes there is a tendency to make techniques used in the sporting arena more flamboyant and indeed, flashy, perhaps reducing their martial effectiveness, but this is a moot point and is not an issue provided these ostentatious displays do not find their way back into grass roots training.

One final thought, regarding my own art, Iaido, as a sport. There is a question of whether using techniques, derived and honed in combat, where people were maimed or died, for the entertainment of others is morally acceptable, but again, that is a debate for another day.

Thus, it would appear that budo and sport can happily co-exist despite the obvious outward differences. Indeed, it could be argued that the use of modern training methods devised by sport scientists, can effectively be applied to budo, enhancing and hastening the acquisition of the necessary skills and showing, definitively that budo and sports can be complimentary.

Dr Anil Sahal

Are Budo and Sports Complimentary?