Training Methods

There are two important points about martial arts training methods. The first is that there is little stress on the intellectual explanation - experience is more important. Masters in the martial arts did not simply lecture on self control, they showed their students its importance.

This probably reflects a general difference between Japanese and Western thinking. I have often personally observed this in the martial arts training halls. In Aikido, one of the martial arts, Japanese students rarely talk. Occasionally, the more advanced partner will correct one or two points in technique, the most of the practice hours in spent in constant throwing and being thrown.

In contrast, Westerners tend spend a few minutes between each throw discussing techniques, trying out variations, and talking about fine points of the art.

Japanese Aikido instructors have explained that too much talk results in an intellectually conceited student, who is unable to progress further. Master Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, never explained his techniques at all. Student had to watch him carefully and then experiment on each other to try to find out just what he did.

The other major point is the importance of mental development over technical skill. The archery teacher taught his students to concentrate on form and not accuracy in order to reach truly high proficiency. Similarly, a great master will have his students develop control over the mind in order to attain true mastery of his art.

Attention and concentration

There two aspects to the problem of improving physical skill through mental discipline. One is the development of powers of attention and concentration. The other is elimination of fear, nervousness and other negative emotions that interfere with performance.

The samurai were trained to keep themselves attentive at all the time. Once, a young man apprenticed himself to a retired sword master. He was put to work chopping wood, preparing food, and cleaning the master's small hut. The boy soon became dissatisfied and requested regular training in swordsmanship.  The master agreed. The result was that the young man could not work with any feeling of safety. From early morning, when he began to cook rice, the master would suddenly appear and strike him from behind with a stick. All day long he felt the same sort of blow from somewhere, some unknown direction.

Some years passed before he could successfully dodge all the master's blow. One day while the apprentice was boiling vegetables, the master struck at his head. Without thinking, the boy lifted the heavy lid to the cooking pot and parried the blow. "Ah," the master exclaimed, "your apprenticeship is over. There is nothing more you need know about the sword."

Another great swordsman tested his three sons. He placed a pillow above the curtained entrance to his room, so that it was sure to fall if anyone entered. One by one, he called his three sons. When the eldest approached, he noticed the pillow, took it down, and after entering, he placed it back in the original position. The second son touched the curtain, and as soon as he saw the pillow coming down, he caught it in his hands, and then carefully put it back. The third son came in quickly, and the pillow fell right on his neck. But he cut it in two with his sword even before it hit the floor.

The father praised his eldest son and gave him a fine sword. He told the second son to continue training hard. the third son was severely reproved as a disgrace to his family.

Zen Training and Concentration

Many teachers trained students to be alert at all times as the retired sword master did with his apprentice - they would suddenly strike their students at the least sign of inattention. This was not practical for training large numbers of students; it was too time consuming.

Many samurai resorted to Zen training for their mental discipline. In Zen meditation, the student attempts to fix his attention on his breath, or perhaps on a koan, a Zen parable. In one of the most famous koans, the student concentrates on the word "Mu". The koan is as follows:

A monk seriously asked a Zen master, "Has a dog Buddha - nature or not?" The master replied "Mu", which literally means "no" or "nothing". It is generally interpreted as an ejaculation rather than a definite answer.

In the practice of this koan, one must not concentrate on the meaning of "Mu"; however, a modern Zen master cautions: "You must not, in other words, think of Mu as a problem involving the existence or nonexistence of Buddha - nature... stop speculating and concentrate wholly on Mu-just Mu! Do not dawdle, practice with every ounce of energy... You must carry on steadfastly for one, two, three or even five years without remission, constantly vigilant... At first you will not be able to pour yourself wholeheartedly into Mu. It will escape you quickly because your mind will start to wander. You will have to concentrate harder-just Mu! Mu! Mu!

This aspect of Zen training is further illustrated in an anecdote concerning the Zen master, Ikkyu. When asked to write some maxims from his great wisdom, Ikkyu wrote the word, "Attention".

"Is that all?" asked his visitor. "Will you not add something more?" Ikkyu then wrote, "Attention. Attention."

"Well," remarked the man rather irritably, "I really don't see much depth or subtlety in what you have written." The Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running, "Attention. Attention. Attention." Half agreed, the man demanded, "What does that word "Attention" mean anyway?" Ikkyu answered gently, "Attention, means Attention."

But how can vigilance be developed by training in concentration? Vigilance refers to responsiveness to a certain class of stimuli, whereas concentration means the exclusion of irrelevant stimuli. For certain tasks, such as laboratory studies of response to a simple stimulus, it is clear that response to a light or buzzer is enhanced by the subject's ability to exclude irrelevant stimuli and concentrate solely on the task at hand. However "real world" is much more complicated. For instance, how could concentration on Mu enable the eldest son to see the pillow before it dropped?

Concentration Vs Absorption

Professor Tempu Nakamura, a noted Japanese psychologist and philosopher, distinguishes between concentration and Absorption. In state of Absorption, the mind is passive, it is caught by the object. In concentration, the mind is actively directed to the object. A classic example of absorption is the man who sees pretty girl while walking and bumps into a telephone pole.

We are all very familiar with the state of absorption. It is clearest when we want to change strong habit. Have you ever made the wrong turn while driving, out of sheer habit? Many of us left home on a Sunday for a ride in the country, and suddenly find ourselves driving on the way to work! When most people in a great hurry, their minds seem to get absorbed by the goal. Have you ever rushed out of the house late and left your brief case on the table?

The absorbed mind is so taken up with object of the thoughts or perceptions that an important stimulus like the briefcase doesn't seem to register. On the other hand, when the mind is concentrated, it is more likely to respond to stimuli. Professor Nakamura writes that a calm, concentrated mind is like a mirror - it reflects all things clearly. Even a something small and relatively insignificant, like pillow over a door way, is perceived.

The Tea Master and the General  

Rikkyu, the founder of the Japanese tea ceremony, developed this kind of calm, concentrated mind. Rikkyu's great and powerful patron, Toyotimi Hideyoshi, would often bring his friends and allies to the tea ceremony. A well known general was particularly impressed by Rikkyu. He noticed that throughout the long, complex ceremony, Rykkyu's movments were so precise and economical; there was never an "opening" for any sort of attack. The general's vanity was piqued, since he knew Rikkyu had never been trained in the martial arts, and he determined to try to strike the tea master lightly with his fan at the first sign of opening.

Toward the close of the ceremony, the general thought he saw his opportunity. At that moment, Rikkyu looked up at him, smiled slightly, and complimented Hideyoshi on having such a fine warrior in his retinue. 

Rikkyu was not passively absorbed in the ceremony. He was calm and attentive to everything about him, even the slightest movements of the general.

Many psychological studies have shown that fear and tension impair performance. The literature on anxiety and cognition clearly indicates that anxiety prevents complex functioning. Although low levels of anxiety lead to increased vigilance and increased sensitization to events, under greater stress individuals become less able to separate the dangerous from the trivial. Also there is a general rigidification of response; behavior tends to become more primitive under great stress. Individuals tend give stereotyped and habitual responses, and the ability to improvise or respond in a differentiated way is reduced.

Clearly, fear and anxiety spelled sudden death for the samurai. The second important aspects of psychological training was to try to eliminate or reduce such reactions. This was done in two ways. One methods was to try to eliminate the most common source of anxiety for the samurai, the fear of dying. The other technique was psychological maintaining a calm mind by keeping the body balanced and relaxed.

Hara (Danjun), the Center in the Abdomen  

This state of bodily equilibrium is called developing hara (ki). Hara literally means "belly" or lower abdomen. In Japanese, the word has a strong spiritual and emotional sense, as well as purely physical. "A man with hara" (hara no aru hito) is balance and tranquil. He is magnanimous, warmhearted and sympathetic. Someone who is mature is one who has "developed" his hara (hara no tekita hito). And "hara art" (hara gei) is the term for activity made perfect through hara - in tea ceremony, swordsmanship, Japanese dance or whatever.

At an international cocktail party, a Japanese gentleman once illustrated the importance the Japanese place on hara. "Note the postures of the Westerners in the room," he remarked to a European friend. "They are all leaning against the wall or standing on one foot. Each one could be toppled over by a slight push from the rear. On the other hand, look at the Japanese present. They are all stand firmly, with the weight well balanced on both feet. They have hara."

Koichi Tohei, the chief instructor of Aikido, leads his students into an icy stream each year at mid winter. the temperature may be eight or nine degrees below freezing and the water, which flows down from snow capped mountains, is bitter cold. He teach that most important thing is to "maintain the single spot in the lower abdomen", to have hara. Once, an outsider asked to join the group. Although not an Aikido student, he was very enthusiastic, and was permitted to join. Tohei reports on what happened:

"When he was in the water, he concentrated completely on doing as I had told him and everything went well. When he came out of the water, however, he became overconfident and lost the single spot. when this happened he began to shake like a leaf. All of the other students, standing around at complete ease without so much as gooseflesh, laughed at this trembling one, and their laughter made him recover the single spot in the lower abdomen so that his trembling stopped."

Eliminating Fear of Death

Although development of hara was important, it was essential that a serious student of the martial arts grapple with the greatest source of stress and anxiety - fear of death. The skilled technician fresh from the training hall was rarely as effective as the less trained, but well seasoned, veteran.

A number of traditional anecdotes illustrate how mastery over fear is superior to technical expertness. One of the personal guards to the shogun, the military ruler of Japan, came to Yagiu Tajima no kami, the shoguns fencing master. He asked to be trained in swordsmanship. Tajima no kami was surprised and said, "You appear to be a master of the art yourself." The guard denied this, but when pressed, he admitted that he had mastered one thing, the fear of death. "When I was still a boy, the thought came upon me that as a samurai, I ought never to be afraid of death, and ever since, I have grappled with the problem of death, and finally the problem has ceased entirely to worry me".

"Exactly," exclaimed Tajima no kami. "That is what I mean. The ultimate secrets of swordsmanship also lie in being released from the thought of death. I have trained ever so many hundreds of my pupils, but so far none of them really deserve the final certificate for swordsmanship. You need no technical training, you are already a master."

In swordsmanship the slightest concern for one's own life will weaken any attack, and create an opening for the opponent. Nagahara Inosuke, another great swordsman, said, "The essence of swordsmanship consists in giving yourself up altogether to the business of striking down the opponent."

There are two ways in which this attitude helps to enhance a fighter's performance. First, it greatly reduces stress and tension. A swordsman who thinks only of cutting down his opponent regardless of the cost to himself become absolutely fearless. a frightful adversary. In the words of great swordsman, "Let the enemy touch your skin and you cut into his flesh; let him cut in your flesh and pierce into his bone; let him pierce into your bone and you take his life!"

Yagyu Tajima no kami was trained to develop this state of mind by his teacher, the great Zen master Takuan. Here are some excerpts from a letter Takuan wrote to his illustrious student:

"As soon as the mind "stops" with an object of whatever nature - be it the opponent's sword or your own, the man himself bent on striking or the sword in his hands, the mode or the measure of the move - you cease to be master of yourself and are sure to fall a victim to the enemy's sword. When you set yourself against him, your mind will be carried away by him. Therefore do not even think of yourself."

"...No doubt you see the sword about to strike you, but do not let your mind 'stop' there. Have no intention to counter-attack him in response to his threatening move, cherish no calculating thoughts whatever. You simple perceive the opponent's move, you do not allow your mind to 'stop' with it, you move on just as you are toward the opponent and make use of his attack by turning it on to himself."

The Tea Master and the Ronin

True mastery transcends any particular art. It stems from mastery of oneself - the ability, developed through self discipline, to be calm, fully aware and completely in control of one's actions. An illustration can be found in a story concerning a master of the Japanese art of tea.

The tea master was challenged to a duel by an unscrupulous ronin who was trying to scare the tea man and extort money from him. There being no way to decline with honor, the tea man resolved that he would die well.

He visited a neighboring fencing teacher and requested that the sword man teach him the art of dying. "You have a unique request," the teacher replied. "I will be happy to grant your wish, but first, please serve me a cup of tea." The tea man was only too glad to make tea for the fencing master, because this was most likely his last chance to practice his art. Forgetting all about the duel, the tea master serenely proceeded to prepare tea, as if this was all that seriously concerned him at the moment.

The swordsman was deeply impressed with his concentrated state of mind, from which all the superficial stirrings of consciousness were swept away. He exclaimed, "There you are! No need for you to learn the art of death. Your present state of mind is enough for you to cope with any swordsman. When you see your ronin, do this: First, think you are going to serve tea for a guest. Courteously salute him, apologizing for the delay and tell him you are now ready for the contest. Take off your outer coat, fold up carefully, and then put your fan on it, just as you do when you are at work. Draw your sword, lift it high over your head, in full readiness to strike down the opponent, and collect your thought for a combat. When attacks, strike him with your sword. It will probably end in a mutual slaying." The tea man thank the swordmaster for his instruction and went back to the place where he promised to meet his opponent.

He scrupulously followed the swordsman's advice with the same attitude of mind as when he was serving tea for his friends. When boldly standing before the ronin, he raised his sword, the ronin saw an altogether different personality before him. He saw no opening, for the tea man now appeared to him as an embodiment of fearlessness. And, throwing up his sword, he prostrated himself on the ground and asked the tea man's pardon for his rude behavior.


I hope that I have managed to provide a few glimpses into traditional Japanese psychology. It is true, that there were many samurai who ignored mental and emotional disciplines, stressing instead training strength and speed (just as many practitioners of modern judo look upon it as just another competitive sport unrelated to large systems of belief and value). 

Let me close with a sort of apology to the reader. I have tried to present the concepts of vigilance, attention, self control, concentration and so on, much as the Japanese do, letting the stories and anecdotes speak for themselves. In a way, the most interesting and challenging thing is to try to analyze these concepts from the standpoint of Western psychology. What, for example, do the disciplines of concentration have to do with altered sensory states or with  subtle kinds of self-suggestion? But this is a complex, delicate task, and the danger of steamrolling the crucial insightful nuances of Japanese thought are very great; all in all, it would require three times as many pages as I've got.

The End

From Psychology Today:    January 1969

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