Judo: The True “Middle Way”

Gautama Buddha, the Buddha, is quoted as having said “Those who have a hundred dear ones have a hundred sufferings. […] Those who have no dear ones have no sufferings” (Bhikkhu, “Visākhā Sutta: Visākhā”). According to Pew Research Center, about 7% of the world population are Buddhist and span mostly Asia, with smaller followings in other parts of the world. Naturally, there is enormous variation in interpretation, focus, and significance of the Buddha’s teachings among the places the religion has spread to, resulting in sub-classifications of Buddhism such as Theravada, Vajrayana or Mahayana Buddhism, to mention the three major branches. However, one of the common threads is the belief that us humans are held captive by our desire for things to be permanent and unchanging (including our own selves), when in reality, in the larger context of the universe, nothing is, like those hundred loved ones that will eventually die. This leads to dukkha, suffering caused by the contradiction of this desire of humans with unavoidable change and impermanence, and samsara, the cycle of dukkha and rebirth because of unfulfilled and unfulfillable desires (Lopez, “Four Noble Truths”).

There is a very obvious way out of this: do not be attached to anything! This is not something that has not been attempted and practiced; historical figures have isolated themselves in the mountains or otherwise away from society and earthly attachments, until they are forced to give up on those and accept the inconsequentiality of human existence, the fact that humans attach fabricated importance to themselves and their makings, their achievements, their relationships, and all of those are just short-lived blips on the boundless fabric of time and the universe, and they try to experience the downstream effects of holding that realization as an essential truth; total detachment, transcending the material world. Some are said to have attained that target, becoming named bodhisattvas or even Buddhas, and some have come back to live among humans and relay their teachings to the rest of humanity. It might sound nihilistic, yet recognizing the – relatively – fleeting nature of literally everything is meant as a way to cherish the blessing of existence and to be able to experience the world as it is and as it changes every single second, to live mindfully and “be present in the moment”.

Today’s world is competitive, and becoming conventionally successful among 7 billion others of one’s kind in such an interconnected landscape requires motivation, focus, dogged determination and resilience, luck, and a billion other things. But why should one strive for success and achievements if nothing is permanent or consequential? How should one maintain their motivation and determination, if they are fully aware that whatever peak they are aiming to conquer, they will – sooner or later – be knocked off of? Also, since, in short, achieving anything worthwhile today requires caring intensely about man-made concepts and evaluative schemes (money, corporate ladders, fame, etc.), is the Buddhist doctrine of liberation from earthly attachments incompatible with living in modern society as a functioning, contributing member? Then how is it that millions of people who identify as Buddhist live in bustling modern cities, that are able to still fucntion within today’s global framework?

There is a balance to be found between dukkha and total detachment, and the Buddha said so, too. The question is how; everyday, we are conditioned to care about way more than what is consequential even to the tiny fraction of the whole that is each person’s life and realm of existence. With the interconnectedness of the world and the availability of shared knowledge today, you might be convinced of and ascribe to notions of which the truth – or not – make absolutely no difference in your life, and your belief in them – or not – also does not change anything. I certainly have an opinion on which album of Kanye West is the best, and have engaged in more than one debates about it; does the answer make any difference in my day-to-day life? No. Does it change his? Certainly not. And I know I am not alone; otherwise I would not have people to debate with. Then how are we supposed to let go of even the attachments that are relevant to our own lives and be freed, if not by completely dissociating from all that?

The Buddha preached of a Middle Way; that neither absolute nihilistic non-existence, nor extreme materialist perception, are perfectly accurate, and therefore neither complete indulgence in sensory and perceptible pleasures nor extreme asceticism are warranted. This is a more practical doctrine than the path to Buddhahood, which is said by many schools to have been appropriate only for a special few in history. Most everyday people that can be described as Buddhists aspire to accumulate good karma, which is the “criterion” for rebirth into a more or less fortunate form (there are six realms in which beings can be reborn in most Buddhist schools: three higher, more fortunate, the heavenly, demi-god, and human, and three lower, unfortunate, the animal, hungry ghost, and hellish realms, and karma determines in which one one is born and where they stand in that) (Lochtefeld, The Six Realms of Existence). However, even if Buddhahood is not fully attained, there is a way to be on the path and simultaneously accrue good karma, while also living in the societal framework, meaning that one can both personally benefit and also work to benefit others in society. Because of the complexity of modern society and the temptation of overlooking collective benefit in favor of personal gain, as is the doctrine of capitalism, a powerful tool, maybe necessary, is to find a way to be mindful and methodical about it. Judo, meaning Kodokan Judo, in the pure sense of following its original principles and the examples of its founder, Jigoro Kano, is a discipline that has helped countless people be productive members of society, while also equipping them for personal improvement along the lines of Buddhist goals.

Jigoro Kano (1860-1938) was an educator, a scholar of the martial arts of Japan, a devout Confucian, and a benevolent globalist. After discovering bujutsu (martial arts) as a way to fend off bullies in his childhood, Kano then engaged in continuous research during his youth into the many fighting styles (which fell under the umbrella term jujutsu) that existed during his time all over Japan. Even though “Kano had fallen in love with jujutsu and believed it must be preserved as a Japanese cultural treasure […], he also believed it had to be adapted to modern times” (Stevens, 17). This, together with his adamant belief that proper education should cultivate an individual in a rounded manner (their mind, body, and spirit), led him to create Kodokan Judo. Starting with a small private academy of his own, in which students lived and practiced a lifestyle rather than just train in a martial art, he slowly expanded as both the technical superiority of his new style and its accompanying spiritual and mental teachings were noticed and appreciated by more and more people in his home country. Kano had a physical education background, owing to his study of the training he himself did as well as observed in other schools. Gaining legitimacy as a martial arts style required Kodokan Judo to compete with other fighting styles, the students of which Kano and his disciples – most of the time – easily bested by using his evolved and well-thought-out teachings. The rare defeats that Kodokan students were handed by some, Kano saw as “wake-up calls” (Stevens, 32), opportunities to observe flaws and perfect his insights. In this manner, as well as in its original composition, Kodokan Judo is a tribute to and continuation of the best parts of the many jujutsu styles of olden Japan, and Kano advocated for their preservation and regularly supported many of the schools that practiced them.

Although Kano had no soteriological vision and was not a particularly religious man (even the opposite, by some accounts (Stevens, 56) – he certainly was not a fan of theocracy and pushed with secularist momentum), the many teachings and principles which he set forth in the context of the Kodokan, and the practice doctrine of his Judo, can definitely be used as tools to live along the Buddhist path.

Firstly, there is a major meditative element at all times while practicing judo. The doctrine of Kano’s judo calls for efficient and optimal use of one’s energy, in the sense that one must not counter force with force, but by using that force against its actor. A judoka is expected to use an opponent’s weight and strength to gain an advantage on them, ju in judo meaning exactly that. In a paper he wrote, Jigoro Kano explained “the principle of ju (flexibility in body and mind) by relating the tale of an old-time teacher observing willow branches yielding, but not breaking, under the weight of heavy snow” (Stevens, 32). Of course, when speaking about combat, it is not as simple as the laws of physics acting on the snow and the willow tree’s flexible branches; applying that principle requires intention to do so (especially since most people instinctively do counter force with force), and presence of mind as well as harmony with the body to accurately time the act upon the opponent’s attack – split seconds early or late could mean the attack being successful. In this way, one must control their natural impulses in judo, and under duress maintain their clarity of mind, essentially meditative traits in the context of enhanced difficulty to do so. Meditation, in various forms, is commonly encountered among judo practitioners; mokuso, for example, rooted in Zazen Buddhism, is a common practice of brief meditation before and/or after a training session, designed to give individuals an opportunity to gauge their own state of mind and thus better channel it into being present and aware of one’s surroundings, in a mindful way, in accordance with proper practice. This practice and skill can be applied to life more broadly as well. For example, Kano says in Mind Over Body: “When encountering social pressures such as those we experience today, even an incredibly strong-willed person can lose spirit and experience great adversity. This is when he must show true character. At times like these, the ability to overcome difficulties, endure and be patient, preserve one’s honor, and maintain a spirit of integrity are truly valuable, above all else. I would like those who practice judo to honor this samurai spirit” (Kano, 130). Further, Kano emphasized that true judo means applying the smart solution to any problem rather than inefficient impulsive behavior, even if that would have done the job as well. When his new, composite style of fighting was gaining prominence and its superiority was being recognized, “Kano was asked how a judo man would handle himself against a bigger wild animal such as a bear. He replied, “Bears are ferocious when cornered, but they will shy away from loud noises or bright lights. The best kind of judo is to keep the bear at bay with proper precautions rather than attempt to confront it face-to-face” (Stevens, 51). And a judoka is supposed to recognize the changing and impermanent nature of all things; Kano states that “one of the most important concepts in judo fighting, says, “If you win, do not boast your victory; if you lose, do not be discouraged. When it is safe, do not be careless; when it is dangerous, do not fear – simply continue down the path ahead” (Kano, 123). Kano also emphasized this principle of keeping a proper judo mindset in difficult conditions in other ways: “[In 1883] Kano instituted kan-geiko­, “cold weather training,” thirty days of severe midwinter practice between four and seven in the morning. In 1896, shochu-geiko, “midsummer training,” the steamy counterpart to the frigid midwinter training, was introduced”. Both of those are still held at dojos around the world today, including the one I trained in. The roots of the belief that resolve in the face of distress signifies true strength can be traced all the way back to samurai culture in Japan. Inazo Nitobe writes in Bushido: “A truly brave man is ever serene; […] In the heat of the battle he remains cool […] We admire him as truly great, who, in the menacing presence of danger or death, retains his self-possession; who, for instance, can compose a poem under impending peril, or hum a strain in the face of death” (Stevens, 52-53). By engaging in this practice through judo, one can definitively become more equipped in dealing with the stresses and burdens of everyday life without feeling overcome by them, and eventually be able to think clearly and find the optimal solution (within the constraints of their own knowledge, of course) to any problem without the obstacle of a foggy mind. Mindfulness and resolve were as central to Kano’s judo as in any other Japanese tradition.

Secondly, “the virtue of frugality was one of Kano’s principal beliefs: in judo as well as daily life, one should always strive for the most efficient use of objects and energy” (Stevens, 33). Frugality, in this sense, can be interpreted as avoiding attachment to unnecessary material luxuries, and therefore liming attachment to earthly things generally, as much as possible. Kano tried to instill this way of living into his students by inuring them in every way possible. Speaking of live-in students at the Kano Academy around 1884, John Stevens writes in The Way of Judo: “the regimen […] was as austere as that of any monk. (In fact, Kano based the schedule and training rules on those of a strictly run Buddhist temple that he had once visited.) […] While studying, […] the trainees had to wear a kimono with hakama (pleated pants) and sit in seiza. [cross-legged] on the hard floor. When not training or studying, the students were kept busy fetching water from the well, looking after guests, cleaning up after meals, and preparing the bath. […] Food was simple: soup, rice, pickles, vegetables, tofu, bamboo shoots, and salted fish. […] The rooms were unheated (because you were supposed to be cold in winter and heat was an unnecessary luxury)”. In a way, he taught an ascetic lifestyle, but still within the framework of a modern society: he disliked the idea of anyone practicing judo as a full-time occupation and preferred his senior disciples-turned-instructors to have outside professions as well. The combination of frugality and austerity in living with participation in superficial doings ensures that a person can live a normal, balanced life, engaging with their society and striving towards success, while also not being sucked into materialism and vanity.

Third, accruing good karma is maybe an unintentional yet definite mandate of a true judoka. It is possibly unintentional in the sense that the mutual-welfare Confucian principles were not necessarily motivated by the promise of good karma, yet they certainly promoted it. “‘If the work of a human being does not benefit society’, [Kano had declared,] ‘that person’s existence is in vain.’” (Stevens, 17). His strong Confucian foundations, inherited from his education, made him a living example of this (as well as of everything else he taught; Kano really walked the walk). Because of his belief that physical education was a necessary component for a healthy individual, and because physical education was oft neglected among higher-learning students in Japan, “concurrent to Kano’s efforts at promoting Kodokan Judo was his drive to establish a required physical education program in every school in Japan”. He also spearheaded many such efforts himself, such as when he went to serve as headmaster of the Fifth Higher School, a school in poor condition in remote Kumamoto, far from his wife whom he had just married two months earlier (Stevens, 36-37). In fact, in that particular position, he took it upon himself to better the school not only by including physical education, but in all manners possible; “Kano and his students were forced to practice outdoors” because neither a dojo nor the funds to build one were available, but still advocated for better facilities and “later got the use of a hall for a dojo called Zuihokan. He sought to bring experienced teachers in existing subjects (including Lafcadio Hearn, “later to achieve world renown as a writer”) used his connections to do so, brought his own Kodokan disciples to fill in these roles as well, and transformed the school. Especially because of the school’s poor condition, he considered his tenure there a personal challenge. His benevolence included personally supporting all students in his Kano Academy, having many that came from backgrounds that meant they were “happy to have a roof over their heads”, financing the Kodokan training center out of pocket as well for decades before reluctantly instituting a monthly fee when enrolled students were already in the hundreds, and basically living his entire adult life broke, despite coming from a very wealthy family, as he was always giving everything he had to provide as many people as possible with the opportunity to practice judo. Kano required all his students to act respectfully and kindly toward one another (as well as toward the instructors, obviously): one thing he emphasized to instructors in the early days of the Kodokan is to teach students “that they must do their best and do things in a kind manner” (Kano, 112), and he believed in judo as a connecting power not only between Japanese people but among all people of the world as well as nations themselves. He “believed that Japan could learn many things from the West; also that there were many things the West could learn from Japan” (Stevens, 59), and, regarding the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo, “Kano vowed that Japan would not turn the Olympics into a nationalist spectacle like the 1936 Berlin games. It would be a true Olympics, bringing nations together in a spirit of peace and friendship”. He instituted the Kodokan Culture Council, of which the third principle is that “the perfection of oneself together with others is the basis of human welfare” (Stevens, 53). He also instituted a number of research centers dedicated to furthering knowledge in medical and physiological subjects as related to judo and exercise. When forming the technical details of Kodokan Judo, he omitted any old jujutsu techniques that could intentionally or unintentionally injure the opponent. He was a pacifist that sought to educate military trainees in a way that they would try to preserve the peace instead of yearn for expansive war, in an era of major Japanese nationalist movements, the existence of which put people with such views as Kano in direct danger. John Stevens writes of Kano the following, as relating to his opposing militarists in government that wanted to turn his Tokyo Teacher Training College (today Tsukuba University) into a giant ROTC campus: “Education must be pleasant, Kano insisted, beneficial for society, not a grim preparation to sacrifice one’s life for the state in a war. The better the education a soldier receives, the better he will behave, not only as a serviceman but also as a citizen. Good education makes good thinkers with an international outlook, not ready to fight but willing to keep the peace” (Stevens, 43). Through example and his teachings, Kano basically ensured that any judoka that followed Kodokan Judo faithfully would have promoted social cohesion and collective prosperity and would be left with a lot of good karma at the end of their life.

Lastly, judo, as any exercise, but especially because of its specific character and of Japanese martial arts in general, promotes physical wellbeing and also pushes students towards an understanding of graceful movement and the laws of physics and perception of space as pertaining to the human body. Kano himself arduously studied the mechanics of the body, ki and its various forms, including how to summon the maximum energy from one’s stance and break that of an opponent, and, as previously mentioned, physiological subjects related to judo, through the many research centers in the field that were and are part of the Kodokan Institute. He was a firm believer that a healthy mind requires a healthy vehicle, and his work and the work he initiated with the research centers, as well as training within the framework of Kodokan Judo, provide guidance for anybody on how to achieve that. Judo, as all of Japanese martial arts, particularly emphasizes training the body in the right way, the most energetically efficient and graceful way, instead of encouraging brute force. Inazo Nitobe, in Bushido, illustrates how the outwards trait of politeness, propriety and formality, that is fundamental in Japanese culture, perfectly fits with (and maybe is a root of) that notion: “[I do not] consider elaborate ceremony as altogether trivial; for it denotes the result of long observation as to the most appropriate method of achieving a certain result. If there is anything to do, there is certainly a best way to do it, and the best way is both the most economical and the most graceful. Mr. Spencer defines grace as the most economical manner of motion. The tea ceremony presents certain definite ways of manipulating a bowl, a spoon, a napkin, etc. To a novice it looks tedious. But one soon discovers that the way prescribed is, after all, the most saving of time and labour, – hence, according to Spencer’s dictum, the most graceful” (67). Just like formalization of the movements of a tea ceremony, form in Judo is designed to achieve optimal use of energy and harmony of movement. Kano backed up this principle with actual scientific research of human physiology and the mechanics of motion, at once verifying it and furthering it. In short, judo (a) trains the body for fitness (b) while keeping in line with its principle of optimal use of energy, allowing it to (c) define the most graceful ways to execute throws and other movements.

All of the principles taught and examples set by Jigoro Kano during his formation of Kodokan Judo and throughout his international career can help a modern human to balance earthly aspirations and living with spirituality, and personal success with mutual welfare, the second motto of judo (jita kyoei). Judo places a lot of weight on the Confucian element of social contribution and wellness of the whole (as opposed to just the individual). It is not inherent in the practice of the martial art, and many dojos today can be fiercely competitive in many ways that are not necessarily good or eusociality-promoting, but Kano’s original vision certainly mandated it. In fact, Kano specifically had a distaste for turning judo into a competitive sport to avoid exactly the unhealthy character of high-level competition (John Stevens says “The primary aim of Kodokan judo was to build character, not superior competition fighters”). Any sensei who follows that vision will make sure to strongly instill to students that helping each other, being accommodating to each other, tolerant, accepting, and generous, is immensely important. Training in judo also certainly can provide with the mental and physical tools to achieve both personal and collective goals. The focus of its founder on frugality and the discipline’s principles of simplicity (in movement and in mind) makes one stronger and more durable, and can help balance attachments to mutable concepts and things. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list; each person naturally perceives and can use all of these tools and practices in their own, specially adapted ways, and emphasize personally relevant lessons from these teachings, that help them live their lives in the best manner possible. This flexibility of modern Kodokan Judo is vital to its usefulness.

In summation, practice of judo in the originally intended way is a great ally in living one’s life in a meaningful way, in all senses of the phrase.  It is mindful, trains the mind to be like that even under strain and builds strength of character. It discourages waste of energy and time; encourages the constant quest for the best use of ourselves. And very importantly, it promotes serving others and society with the best one has to offer. It may fall short of the path to Buddhahood, and might never lead you to find nirvana, but is also a more considerate and mindful way of going through life than mechanistically striving for the accruement of good karma, and promotes health and wellbeing as part of a safe and modernized way of exercise, together with awareness of and appreciation for Japan’s cultural and martial legacy. The compromise of not aiming for unattainable – in a modern social context – complete liberation, while also striving, in a well-informed way, to do more than just be a pawn in life, makes it a true “Middle Way”.

Works cited:

  1. “Visākhā Sutta: Visākhā”. Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight: Readings in Theravada Buddhism, 2012, www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.8.08.than.html.
  2. “Buddhists”. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, Pew Research Center, 18 Dec. 2012, www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-buddhist/.
  3. Kanō Jigorō. Mind over Muscle: Writings from the Founder of Judo. Translated by Nancy Ross, First ed., Kodansha Intl., 2005.
  4. Lochtefeld, James G. The Six Realms of Existence. Carthage College, 11 Sept. 2005, personal.carthage.edu/jlochtefeld/buddhism/wheeloflife/sixrealms.html.
  5. Lopez, Donald S. “Four Noble Truths”. Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 Mar. 2017, www.britannica.com/topic/Four-Noble-Truths.
  6. Nitobe Inazō. Bushido: the Soul of Japan. Kodansha USA, 2012.
  7. Stevens, John. The Way of Judo: a Portrait of Jigoro Kano and His Students. Shambhala, 2013.

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