“I train for the ryu”

Jeffrey Mann wrote a response to my last post: “If I understand him correctly, he sees the reason for training in a koryu to be for the sake of the koryu itself, not the people in it or for the sake of historical archiving. However, our actions on behalf of an entity (like a nation) are usually for the sake of the people who live, or will live, in that entity. Doing something good for the entity itself, when it becomes the telos itself, seems misdirected. My contributions to a company, university, or nation are for the well being of its members and, hopefully by extension, the world. This seems to be the model of modern budo folks like Kano, Ueshiba, Doshin So, etc. This is more than pursuing the “Way” for myself alone. I don’t get what Amdur perceives to be the telos of the person who says, “I train for the ryu,” as he does.

What are the alternatives Mr. Mann offers to ‘training for the ryu?’ Let us first address ‘historical archiving.’ Without a doubt, this must be part of one’s involvement in any traditional martial art; otherwise, why train in culture specific, archaic combative methodology with weapons that will, perhaps, never be used again? However, to regard this to be the primary role of the ryu and its members, as exemplified in the phrase mukei bunkazai (‘intangible cultural treasure’), is problematic.

Many who subscribe to this view regard what they have been taught as inviolate, somehow handed down generation after generation in unaltered form. I have seen so much evidence to the contrary. Most prosaically, there are films of various ryu going back several generations where one can see significant changes from one era to another. There are other teachers, still paying lip-service to the ‘mukei-bunkazai identity,’ who arbitrarily change techniques or entire kata, saying it looks better in the ‘new’ version, or intending to conform to the methodology practiced in the larger modern budo organization (i.e., kendo, naginata-do or iaido federation) that they’ve joined. Others do so unconsciously, believing they are maintaining exactly what their instructor passed on to them, despite clear evidence to the contrary–they literally are not aware how differently they are moving. If any such ‘unconscious innovators’  are inept or grandiose, their errors are graven in stone for the next generation. There are many koryu that preserve inane techniques, or even kata with illogical sequences that do not contribute to survival, no matter how one tries to craft an explanation for them. Many have lost so much of the essence of their school that they truly exemplify form without substance.

[NOTE: I am not considering here koryu that deliberately strive to improve themselves by openly revising or even reviving abandoned kata, albeit within parameters circumscribed by the essential gokui  (essential, core teachings) of the school. I have discussed this intriguing subject in Skoss’ The Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan series].

Training within a ‘living antique’ often leads to an arrogant attitude.  With no impetus to train as if one’s life depends on one’s actions, many rest on the laurels of previous generations, considering membership in the ryu to be laurels enough for modern times. With such a mindset, the ryu invariably change for the worse. Many practitioners have never had to face anything unpredictable (‘live’) with the weapons, physical techniques or psychological mindset that they are allegedly training. I recall one eminent shihan saying to me, “I can do my grocery list while I’m doing the kata.” I assumed he intended to impress me, as if this were an embodiment of mushin (‘unattached mind’). Instead, I took it to indicate that he is a master at rote movement, because although a mind unfixed by agenda or plans is essential in live training or real combat, letting one’s mind wander elsewhere is impossible if one is facing an enemy (or training partner) of equal or greater skill. Archiving a combative methodology is a desiccated practice; kata devolve into fossilized movements, without flesh or blood.

Mr. Mann also suggests that one might train for the well-being of the members of the group. How is this different than a social club or mutual-aid society? However, to actually learn what the warrior class of Japan knew, one must serve something larger than oneself. Authentic ryu were embodied ideologies. Moving a certain way enables one to exist, for a time, as one’s ancestors did. This is augmented by kuden, oral teachings that teach mindset: not only psychophysical organization for dangerous, even life-threatening situations, but expectations on how one is expected to behave amongst armed and dangerous peers.

If one holds the light-weight intent of a hobby or social club, why preserve tradition? (In this wise, Mr. Mann’s two ‘telos’ are in conflict). Why practice techniques that might be dangerous, or disturbing (i.e., an eye gouge or a stab upwards into the groin),  where, with a small change of angle or target, one could practice with more safety and look better while doing it, too?  In fact, safer, more elegant practice can lead to far greater enjoyment among one’s training partners: vitiation of a ryu could easily be construed as support the individuals within the group.

There is no doubt that there is an ‘as-if’ quality to the ryu. If one honestly wishes to study true combatives and live the values inherent in such training, then one should join the military, an honorable and courageous thing to do.   At one time, koryu may have been methodologies for survival. They were also an indoctrination into the ideology of an extant society (and class structure), offering comprehensive instructions on how a man or woman of a certain social class or status was expected to behave, most centrally concerning how to wield power in certain circumstances and how to defer to it in others.  Given that part of that society was based on service, ‘training for the ryu’ helps us experience something that may be absent from most people’s lives today, a sometimes extravagant offering of oneself for something intangible: an amalgam of psycho-spiritual training, combative techniques for the purpose of killing other human beings, and a way of training to survive in another world, in many ways, long lost.

This cannot occur if one is merely intrigued by the archaic techniques, enjoys the company of peers and seniors, admires the teacher and loves the history. One must be willing to be ‘infected’ by the ryu, so that one sees the world inalterably tinted by its perspective. By circumscribing one’s world view in this manner, one has an opportunity to have a far deeper understanding of how one’s ancestors lived: one can literally walk in their footsteps, breathe in their rhythms and fight within their shadow. Because the ryu (and the society that birthed it) emphasized collective ties rather than individual actions, commitment to the ryu must be paramount if one is truly a trainee. (The phrase ippiki okami (‘lone wolf’) is a term of praise for many in the West – a man who strikes his own path – but in Japan, such an individual was simultaneously admired and abhorred,  celebrated only after they were destroyed by the culture they were revolting against.)

In concrete terms, this means is that if a member of the ryu is casual in his or her practice, or worse, disruptive, a teacher (myself for example) can easily expel them from the ryu, and conceivably cut them off from their friends within the school. Their presence disrupts practice, and this disrupts the deep commitment of other, serious trainees.  Another person may have the best intentions in the world, but may be untalented or somehow unable to grasp the character of the ryu. Through no fault of their own, they may simply not fit the requirements of the ryu. Every moment spent training with them may be a waste of time, and teaching them is a waste of energy for the teacher. If so, they, too, should be told that their time training is over, as far as the ryu is concerned. Why? Because their presence damages the ryu. The fact that such an action might profoundly hurt their feelings is of little concern to me. Were training in the ryu primarily for the support of the people who joined it (like the modern martial arts Mr. Mann cites), this might be regarded as unkind, ungenerous, or elitist (or whatever negative term you’d like to apply to it). But if I wished to make friends, it would not be through teaching koryu. Training may benefit the people in the ryu, but only if they, in turn, benefit the ryu. They are there for a reason: not friendship, although that might occur, nor community, although that will surely develop. Their presence must contribute to the survival of the ryu itself.



  1. Great response, and I enjoyed reading the original article. Having been part of the “do”-circle for half of a century, I shifted to the “ryu”-circle quite some time ago. I find the ryu and its members the most awesome group I have come across ever in Budo. As a kaicho for two ryu, I find it important to choose members who will assist in further promoting, preserving and enjoying the ryu. Others cannot join. The dedication and effort within the ryu creates such a strong band and assists in further building a strong ryu.


  2. I agree with you, Ellis, and this was part of a long conversation with A-Han over coffee this afternoon. However I might propose a subtle variation to the reasoning.

    In our school, we tend to think of this legacy as a meme in the original Richard Dawkins interpretation. That is, an idea/ pattern of behavior/pattern of movement that happens to enhance survivability and is passed down. Like genetic material, it can mutate/adapt to changing environments. Hence, it is neither devoid of a clear linkage to past Masters nor a calcified fossil that is unchanging. As Dawkins said, I think, the only true immortality we might enjoy is in the memes we leave behind. The linkage to the past master is not to enhance our reputation (the Ryu serving the present generation) but with the belief that through us the expression of the Master’s teachings continues to flow and as such he thus lives on. Of course, I am aware in writing this that flow is the meaning of Ryu. I train for the Ryu.


    1. That really nails my view of a ryu (contrary to many in the koryu world, certainly). It is a flow, not an institution. And to wax poetic (albeit poorly), one is required to respect the ‘banks’ of the stream, not necessarily every drop of water within it.


      1. As attributed to Heraclitus — ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’


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