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Practical Applications of the Seven Virtues for a Novice

By Hunter Kelly

 

Although martial arts are known for espousing the idea that values learned inside the school translate into everyday life, many students may not fully understand how this is accomplished. In fact, many students may disregard the sentiment of “living the martial arts way” as silly or outdated. As to whether or not this disillusionment is justified, the answer will only be found later on in a student’s career. However, the virtues also serve many practical purposes within the school which all students should be aware of. As fundamental as the basics of every martial arts technique, students should know how each of the Seven Virtues of Bushido play an integral part in how they go about their journey.

The first virtue that any student encounters is Courage. Courage is known as confronting your own fears, pain, uncertainty, limitations and mistakes. Indeed, any new student needs some modicum of courage to first join a school, and more to learn how to fall. From simply a physical standpoint, a student needs to confront the pain involved in not only break-falling but also in every technique where they are Uke, as every technique ends in either a fall or a submission. Furthermore, as every beginner is taught, a timid or unwilling or resisting Uke can cause either party to be injured. Even if injury never occurs due to being afraid, submitting or falling too soon will not provide your partners with the necessary feedback for them to truly understand how to properly apply a technique.

From a mental standpoint, being unwilling to confront your limitations and/or mistakes will necessarily prevent you from progressing in the areas which you need most. A student must have the courage to welcome criticism, which stems from the realization that everyone makes mistakes; and that we must first confront them openly before we can begin to correct them. As a student begins to make fewer mistakes in performing the techniques that they know, they must then employ courage once again to challenge themselves. They must challenge themselves until more mistakes occur, which ensures that the learning process never truly ends. The student must also realize that, without Courage, they would not undertake any of the other virtues.

The second virtue that every student must reconcile is Politeness. Politeness can be summed up as conducting yourself humbly, as a necessary conclusion from realizing your role, status, and obligations within a system. When you begin training under an instructor, there is an underlying humbling and acknowledgement of wisdom that you concede, whether you know it or not. By the simple act of requesting to become a student, you tacitly admit that you are lacking in some knowledge or skill; knowledge that you believe the teacher has. If a student chooses to undermine or defy their teacher, then, not only are they not being polite, they are fundamentally choosing to waste their own time by being a student. This is not to say that you cannot question and inquire about something that you don’t understand, but doing so without politeness or regarding your role makes a statement that you know better than they who you’ve asked to help you learn.

Politeness also serves the whole of the system and, in turn, every student within the system, by maintaining hierarchy and order. By acknowledging your role in a system, you and others will help ensure that knowledge and authority is properly transmitted throughout the ranks. Without being polite yourself, you will drive others away, not only undermining the system but also leaving yourself without any partners, who are necessary for practice and learning. Finally, without Politeness, none of the other virtues have a place, because there would be no order, and there would be no way to properly communicate their importance.

That brings us to the third virtue that a student will encounter: Veracity. Veracity is the act of being truthful; being truthful-in-word, conduct, and with yourself. While veracity seems very obvious in its importance, new students must understand some of the subtle consequences if the virtue isn’t upheld. Truthfulness-in-word is a concept which everyone is expected to understand, far before becoming a student of the martial arts. For when you aren’t honest and the truth is found, and it will be found, you lose credibility and the trust of those around you; specifically those whom you require to practice and progress.

While being honest with others is crucial to being truly successful, being honest with yourself is a much greater concern. Self-deception can be a root-cause to many issues that stand in your way to becoming better. Simply put, a student needs to be truthful with themselves by remaining objective when evaluating their own aptitude. If a student is able to see, with the least amount of bias possible, their feats and faults, their strengths and weaknesses, then they will have precisely what they need in order to improve. The quality of this insight is such that it provides priceless clarity, which can lead not only to progress, but faster, more efficient progress. As for its relation to the other virtues, Veracity provides the only means by which all the others may be verified and qualified.

To mark the middle of the list is to show how integral Justice is to the novice student. In fact, Justice stands as the premier virtue that enables students to perform their techniques, followed by Courage. Justice, amongst other things, is acting or actions justified by ethics, fairness, the system, and physics; the latter two of which new students must pay special attention. From the physical standpoint of performing techniques, mankind is bound by the laws of physics. That is to say that, for the ends which a system desires or demands, the means must comply with the laws of nature in order to accomplish them. If you disregard the laws of nature, then you have no base for making techniques work. Therefore, you must perform techniques in such a way that they are justified by physics.

To further the endeavor of making techniques work, a student must also conform to the systems rules, tactics, and strategies in order to justify their performance. The system is designed to work in a self-consistent way, and to deny that is to invite failure into the applications of your techniques. When the idea of a valid system is taken to its logical conclusion, you can see that without acting justly, there is no hope to have standards, or uniformity amongst students. This in turn means that you will not have any basis for correcting yourself, or knowing if you’ve failed, until it’s too late. It should now be apparent that Justice serves as a means of judging and keeping consistent each of the other virtues.

From the ever-present virtue of Justice, we now turn our attention to the elusive virtue of Benevolence. The elusive quality I refer to is not a definitional one, as Benevolence is simply being kind, charitable, and acting with goodwill; nor is it because the virtue is hard to conceive. No, Benevolence is elusive in the fact that it may be difficult and too subtle for a novice to appreciate, in regards to its effects on performance. But, everyone knows how it feels to be the subject of someone else’s lack thereof. And, while being in a poor or stressed mental condition can hinder learning, the fact is that, without goodwill, a student may never find a teacher to begin with. Relating to Politeness, a student must come to appreciate that they are the product of a benevolent teacher, and that if it were any other way they would have never received quality instruction or nurtured progress.

It is true that much can be said of Benevolence by simply comparing it to its opposite. Without goodwill, a student’s ego will run rampant. With the ego in charge, a student is more prone to become frustrated, eager to conflict, and dangerous; not a giant leap from the self-deception that Veracity helps combat. However, if a student is kind, they will be able to focus their energies into learning; and, if the time comes, this kindness will help them to distinguish between a real threat and a conflict easily walked away from. Benevolence stands as the conscience of the virtues, making sure they are always applied with the proper intent.

Loyalty can be one of the easiest virtues to perform or embody partially; being cherry-picked into something slightly more than lip-service. However, when applied correctly, Loyalty becomes one of the most vital virtues to a student’s success. To say that Loyalty is being devoted and faithful is not an unfair understanding; but, perhaps more implicitly, Loyalty also demands trust and priority. Devotion and faithfulness are actually emergent qualities, only truly arising after a significant time has passed or an inspiring action has occurred. The early stages of loyalty, however, demand trust, which comes with the same realization as does being polite: your role within a system. You must trust that your teacher knows what’s best, for if you question everything at first glance you will get answers which you don’t understand, and you will never progress. The burden of understanding the bigger picture is not a novice’s to bear, and trying to do so will only slow you down. Trust is not only needed for your instructor, but your partners as well. Aligned with Courage, trust is needed so that you do not Uke incorrectly, keeping yourself and your partner in a safe, learning environment.

The other initial quality in Loyalty is the most often ignored, especially in today’s frame of mind that sees the martial arts endeavor as little more than stamp collecting or any other hobby. Being loyal demands giving the system, and your training, priority in your life. Without giving priority to your attendance, you will slow or stop your progress in the same way that a muscle, when not used, will atrophy. The priority of the system in your life has a straight-line, direct correlation to not only your physical performance, but to your understanding of the system. This does not include any explanation, or clarification, of anything you have learned that is taught when you aren’t in attendance. A student cannot simply expect to be on par, if they do not make attendance and attention to class a priority. And, without Loyalty, a student can never hope to keep to any of the other virtues.

Lastly, of all the virtues, Honor is certainly the most distant to a new student. Honor, or dignity, self-worth, or a sense of responsibility takes a good deal of experience to truly exhibit. However, that isn’t to say that it doesn’t manifest itself throughout a student’s early career. More basically, dignity can be equated to seriousness. A student must show a seriousness in their practice, or else they would never truly accomplish anything of value. To treat your training as a game, or overly casual, results in everyone’s time and effort being wasted. Furthermore, if the student doesn’t communicate in a serious manner, they will never be treated as serious by the instructor, who will withhold meaningful information.

A student must also assume responsibility for their training. While it takes an instructor to pass on knowledge, the student is really the main one accountable if they do not apply what they’ve learned. Just as the instructor did not goad the student into the martial arts undertaking, they are not the one who is responsible for a student’s seriousness or diligence. Within each technique, the student must also strive to perform with the proper follow-through. Aided by trust and Courage, the student must perform techniques with unquestioned resolve in order for them to truly achieve proficiency and reliability. Without Honor, no other virtue will be taken seriously, causing them to lose any meaning to those who should be shown their significance by example.

The Seven Virtues of Bushido can be very broadly interpreted and defined, which is what makes them highly suitable as principles to live by. However, simply because they can mean a great many things and can be explored in great detail should not detract beginners from seeing their most basic, initial value. When paired with the basic concepts of how to apply techniques such as posture, distance, yielding, etc. the virtues form an excellent foundation upon which any student that practices all aspects of martial arts thoroughly may become an example of what it truly means to be a martial artist.

 

(Submitted May 31st, 2014)



 
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Minami Budo Ryu
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