Muto (No Sword) and a Man with a Stick

I’m Still a Man With a Stick

But Have a Goal Called Muto (No Sword)

Muto - no sword

I remember practicing Staff Basics (Bo Kihon) in the dojo with Sensei Akutagawa watching. He corrected me and then said something that at once surprised me, then was so totally obvious that it was one of those slap in the forehead moments (why didn’t I see that before!).

He said that all staff techniques were the same as the unarmed techniques we used in Karate. The blocks were the same, thrusting with the staff was the same as the punching, and the bottom of the staff rising upward was just like a front kick. To anyone who studies Kobudo (“Old Martial Way” but commonly used to reference Okinawan weapons such as the Bo, Sai, Tonfa and Kai), the Okinawan weapons such as the Tonfa and Sai are used as extensions to our existing unarmed technique. This is nothing new. In fact all weapons as an extension of our bodies.

But then, Sensei continued with his stick analogy using an inductive reasoning approach (going from a specific to a generality) and took me to a new place of thinking about my Karate, Kobudo and Iaido. He went the other way. He reversed the question and instead of saying the Bo was an extension of the body, he said the body was an extension of sticks. The structure of our body was really a bunch of connected sticks, and we use those sticks just like we use the Bo.

For example, we use the end of the Bo for striking, and when we make a fist, we are striking with the end of the bones in our hand. When we strike with an elbow or knee, we are doing the same. Even when we kick, for example, front kick, we are kicking with the ball of the foot which is the end of the tarsal bones and metatarsals.

While the ends of the Staff are used for striking, the center portion of the staff is used for blocking, controlling and deflecting, just like we do in Karate.  Many of our blocks use the forearm to catch and deflect an incoming punch. While there are a number of notable exceptions to this generality, this way of looking at the body gives you a tool that can be used when you pick up a weapon or as you practice unarmed technique.

A weapon becomes an extension of those sticks in your body. When I first started Iaido, the sword felt awkward in my hands, but as a came to realize that it was and extension of my existing linkage of sticks (bones), the sword began to take on a familiarity.

There are three training stages you go through when picking up a weapon.

First you are a man with a stick (or man with a sword, gun etc.)—meaning the stick and the man are separate things—no connected. The weapon is a distinct and apart from you. I’ll use an analogy of chopping wood with an axe. If you are using an axe and swinging it like a hatchet, your technique is likely to suffer. Trying to swing your axe with a quick chopping movement using your wrist is likely to be inefficient and weak. Whereas swinging the axe with the arms in a full arc will be much more effective. Here the length of the tool requires it to be used with larger movements. Likewise swinging a hatchet like an axe is likely to be equally ineffective and possibly dangerous to you. Each tool has a natural swing and has a natural cadence.

The second stage is where you are a stickman (swordsman, or marksman)—meaning the stick and the man become extensions of each other. There is a familiarity with your weapon, you know how it balances, your muscles feel comfortable with its weight and you know how to use it naturally. But what happens when you loose your weapon or have none to begin with when you need it?

The final stage is when the man and the sword are one Muto - definition and kanji–meaning there is no man and no sword, just a single entity. Understanding the body is made up of a series of connected sticks (bones) means adding one more does not make any difference. The arm becomes a sword if you don’t have one, if a stick is available then it is used. This is the essence of a concept called Muto (No Sword).

Muto, however, goes well beyond technical  application  and  is  not  about  technique,  but  more  a  state  of  mind.  When one  has  reached  the  state  of  No  Sword (Muto), one does not need a sword. Yagyu Munenori, a famous seventeenth century swordsman describes  some  of  the  aspects of Muto Tori in the following:

“If  you  can  adopt  as  your  sword even the one you take from your opponent   when   you   do   not   have   one, shouldn’t  you  be  able  to  make  use  of whatever else you may have on hand? Even with a fan, you should be able to defeat  an  opponent  equipped  with  a sword.  No-sword  means  the  readiness to do this.”

His  statement  is  actually  very  profound.  It  refers  to  the  ability  to  meet the  opponent  in  a  fluid  and  confident way, were one is able to see the possibilities of the engagement all around him.  This  means  the ability  to  use the  environment  around  oneself  to defeat the opponent. All possibilities exist—because you are the weapon.

Stand under a tree limb to prevent the  opponent  from  slashing  downward. Use a stick to parry the cut. Maneuver  the  opponent  so  the  sun  is  in  his eyes.  These are  all ways  you  can  utilize  the  surrounding   environment.   The   ability   to even  take  the  opponent’s  sword  and  use it against him is also a possibility.

Taking  this  idea  of  No  Sword  (Muto) further,   Yamaoka   Tesshu,   founder   of Muto  Ryu  (No  Sword  Style)  describes  it this way:

“Outside   the   mind   there   is  no sword.  Therefore,  when  facing  an  opponent, there is no enemy in front and no self behind. Miraculously, all boundaries are extinguished and no trace remains. This is No Sword.”

Sounds  remarkably  like  Zen—and  the collapse of Duality.

When it comes to Kobudo and Iaido, I’m still a man with a stick. Which means I still have a lot of quality time in the dojo to look forward to. When it comes to Karate, I have 206 sticks that I still am learning to coordinate in new and wonderful ways. Even though Sensei Akutagawa has passed away, I know he is smiling down at me knowing that my head is full of sticks (literally and metaphorically).

I still maybe a man with a stick (probably one too many), but I have a goal called Muto. Or in the case of the Staff – Mubo (No Staff). Which means the concept I am really after is Mushin (No Mind), but that is another story. I still have sticks in my head that I have to gt rid of.

by Rick Rowell

If you would like to learn more about concepts such as Muto, consider Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles.

The Essence of Iaido – Cutting the Carp’s Mouth (Koiguchi o Kiru)

Iaido = giant carp

I remember when I was preparing for my Iaido shodan exam in Kumamoto. After practice, I had a quiet moment with Tashiro Sensei. I asked him what he considered the essence of Iaido. His answer though seemingly simple was yet profound and made me think about my martial journey differently from then on.

Iaido is the Martial Way (Budo) of drawing and striking with Iaido - definition and Kanjithe sword. Iai means to “Reside in the Present” or to “Unite with the Present” and Do, means “path or “the way.” Combined, the term can loosely be described as “The way of residing in the present. I began my study of Iaido as a way to learn more about Karate

Tashiro Sensei looked at me and said “Koiguchi o Kiru,” which means to cut the carp’s mouth. For those of you not familiar with Iaido or the Japanese sword, the koiguchi is the mouth of the scabbard and it resembles the mouth of a carp.

Iaido - Cutting the carp's mouthCutting the Carp’s mouth is shown in the figure at right. It looks like a insignificant movement. Just pushing the sword guard (Tsuba) with the thumb to free the sword. And yet this is what Tashiro Sensei considered the true essence of Iaido. It wasn’t the cutting, it wasn’t the kata—it wasn’t the technical application of using the sword at all, and yet it was all of that. Tashiro Sensei said “Everything after cutting the carp’s mouth is just Kenjustsu (Sword art – or application of the sword). 

The sword is made from the application of intense heat and pounding, the steel is shaped and then tempered. Its formation evolves with much skill and perseverance of the sword smith.

We undergo a similar process through our study of Budo. All of us will be faced with life circumstances that will help forge our constitutions into good steel if we have faith.

And as we study the practical application of using the sword or our martial art (Bujutsu) we also forge in ourselves, fortitude, perseverance, resolution, and will. This means our steel develops Strength. The practice of Iaido develops good steel.

Developing skill with the sword is essential, but not the heart of Iaido.  

What is Cutting?

Using the sword means cutting, but have you ever considered what cutting is? Cutting is separating something from something else. It creates a boundary.  

We cut things figuratively every day.  We use words to cut. We use actions to cut. Sometimes we cut with purpose and at others we cut indiscriminately. We can cut to destroy, or create.

For example, when you scold a child, it is not to cut with the purpose to destroy, but to cut with the purpose of pruning. The hope is that better fruit (our children) will grow when we limit less desirable characteristics.

The act of cutting is one you should consider carefully. Your temperance and prudence is critical in the decision to cut. When you destroy one thing, you create new circumstances. There is an old saying – “Battles have long tails.” Killing your opponent may bring further misery, or liberation – depending on what or who your opponent is. Your opponent can even be yourself.

Negative self-talk (I am not good enough) cuts you away from self-fulfillment. Consider carefully what you wish to prune and so separate. Many cut indiscriminately, pruning pieces of happiness, love, empathy, and wonder from themselves and others. Before you cut the carp’s mouth consider what you may be cutting. Yelling at your son, daughter or spouse may only cut you away from intimacy, love and respect. If you cut happiness away from yourself, you weaken your steel.

Sometimes cutting is necessary to separate yourself away from negative relationship, practice or habits. Just like a surgeon prunes dead and diseased tissue, sometimes it is necessary to destroy in order to heal. The real test of wisdom is to know when to cut, and to cut with purpose and design.

This is not to say that you should hesitate in cutting. It means you have considered these things before you ever have to cut the carp’s mouth. To me this is a high level expression of Initiative Before the Initiative (Sen no Sen). It means you have decided the circumstances for which you are willing the cut the carp’s mouth. Once you have cut the carp’s mouth you are living in the moment of the action you have engaged in, whether it is combat or helping a friend.

This is the essence of Iaido.

Cut in the Positive Direction – Make Things Better

One wouldn’t think that using a sword could show beauty and yet when combined with the wisdom of positive purpose and the strength good steel, skill, and fortitude–beauty is the result.

There is the death giving sword and the life giving sword. The life giving sword stays in its scabbard the majority of the time. When it is employed it is honest, used for the benefit of others and cuts swiftly and cleanly. 

Iaido shows us a wise path – the wisdom to know when to use the sword. Practicing cutting (bujutsu) allows us to cut with strength when it is appropriate to apply our skill in different circumstances. Remember you can cut with a real sword, or figuratively with your words and actions. 

I am reminded of these things every time I see or touch a sword.

 When you have strength, wisdom and beauty inside – you become the sword.

The knights templar were charged to never draw the sword unless convinced of the justice of the cause in which it is engaged, nor sheath it until his enemies are subdued.

“Do not draw me without justice, Do not sheathe me without honor”.

In the west, the two edges of the blade signify right and law, that the poor are to be defended from the rich and the weak from the strong.

Iaido uses a sword with only one edge. It teaches that the edge is to cut in the right direction and the back is capable of showing compassion even after you have drawn the sword.

Iaido does not mean some esoteric fluff with the sword. It combines application of martial techniques (Bujutsu) with a consideration of both positive and negative purpose. We sometimes loose sight of the essence of Iai because we love to feel the technique when the sword slides from the scabard.

I have learned that the simple push of my thumb to cut the carp’s mouth has opened a whole new avenue to explore my understanding of not only Iaido but all Martial Ways (Budo.)

Ways to look at Budo – Great Way, Small Way

Different ways of looking at the Way

Big Things Can Come in Small Packages and Vice Versa

I reviewed some old notes scribbled down hastily after a lengthy conversation with Akutagawa Sensei, and I found a little gem to share. We were discussing the concept of Do or ‘Path’ as it relates to Budo. Sensei Akutagawa is no longer with us, but the echoes of his thoughts in my notes allowed me to reflect on these ideas after all these years, and he still teaches me.

Daido - Great RoadDaido can mean a main street or highway, but in our Budo context, it can mean a great principle. Sensei described Daido to me as the main stem, like the trunk of a tree, the spiritual or intangible truths, the core of our being and our martial journey.

He contrasted this with the Small Way – Shodo, by comparing it to a single branch tip—to a single technique, action, or experience.

We all start our training in martial arts by learning little truths; for example, how to make a fist, or hold a sword. That little branch tip of information that your Sensei shares with you, along with others, merge into a twig that encompasses how we use our fist.

Shodo - the branchEven though I learned these small ways from my teachers, there was always something about my teachers, something deeper that made me want to learn from them. Was it their knowledge, wisdom, ability, and confidence? Yes, all that, but there was something else. There were all these intangibles that I wanted to acquire—something deeper that I could somehow feel but not experience directly. I had to train.

But I saw that deeper intangible in their Shodo—their technique, the way they helped me learn, the way they were hard with me when I needed that too. Another interesting thing that Akutagawa Sensei said to me was that Shodo is always inspired from Daido. The beauty and strength we see and appreciate in a well-executed technique is created from something deeper in the individual. We see only the downy tip of that creation, and yet, as a beginner it was technique that inspired us to want to learn more. To capture that something is what drives us to train and strive.

As I think about these ideas, I realize that Shodo gives me the pathway I can use to understand larger principles in myself from a single technique. Will the pathway be exactly the same as my Sensei’s? No. It may merge with a different branch, just like all trees are different. But if I follow it back far enough, my branch will merge into a single trunk and then into the soil. That soil is the same soil my Sensei’s tree grew from.

We spend a lot of our time out in the branch tips seeking new technique, action and experience. As we struggle to integrate these into larger meanings in our life, we realize that our roots are embedded in the same matrix as everyone else.

The point of this essay is that our teachers show us only the tips of their branches—their Shodo—because we can never directly experience the deeper core of their being. When our tree touches theirs, a new twig emerges in our tree. That new downy branch tip can sometimes drive our understanding straight down to the trunk like a lightning bolt, can whither, stay dormant, swirl around for years in the high branches, or reach further down to something deeper—the core of our being.

We need to experience the Small Ways (Shodo) of our teachers to seek the Great Way (Daido) underneath, and we need the Great Way in us to inspire us to search for the techniques, actions, and experiences that shape who we are. When Shodo becomes Daido is something hard to figure out. One can’t exist without the other.

Our techniques, actions, and experiences (Shodo) are created from something deeper in us (Daido). At the same time the Great Way in us is inspired by the Small Ways of our teachers. And that is what we call the Way.

Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Rick Rowell

What is Budo Today?


Budo - definition and KnajiBudo, the ‘Martial Way’ or ‘Military Path’ is typically related to Japanese martial arts such as Karate-do, Judo, Kendo, and a number of others, but today the concept of Budo goes well beyond Japanese martial arts.

The term Budo is of relatively recent origin. Some even describe it as the Modern Military Way (Gendai Budo) to differentiate it from older forms of military arts (Old Form Military Arts – Koryu Bujutsu). We like to differentiate into ‘this’ or ‘that.’ There are wide paths, narrow paths, steep and rocky paths, career paths, and paths of least resistance.  Paths come in many flavours. Today Budo has evolved to encompass both old and new thinking—it is an inclusive concept.

Budo today includes the older Bujutsu—a deep, multi-dimensional, and a broad subject to study. On top of that base, Budo becomes more than the mere application of military principles on the battlefield. It is a path that has as its end goal a well-balanced and self-fulfilled person.  Studying Budo expands horizons physically, mentally, and in other disciplines such as art, music, science, philosophy and psychology; and if you want, it opens up a spiritual avenue to ponder.

Budo can apply to all martial traditions—Budo transcends one culture. Budo concepts cut across physical, mental, and spiritual boundaries.  There are many tangible aspects of Budo and yet the real heart of Budo is intangible.

The unique Japanese flavor of Budo came from systematic study of martial arts endemic to that region of the world, but many concepts derived from this path have also been discovered by other cultures and continue to be used in current military science.

Budo Has Evolved

Budo - evolutionJust like Einstein who generalized Maxwell’s equations to a higher dimension to give us a new era of physics, principles of military science have been generalized on a number of levels and have evolved to give us Budo.

Budo as we know it today evolved from something quite different. Warfare is very old. Weapons, fighting techniques and strategies that worked became codified and relied upon for both offensive and defensive roles on both micro and macro scales; rulers fought for control of empires, and the common man protected his life and property.

Budo - Bujutsu definition and KnajiBujutsu: The application of technique—first appeared out of necessity. The ability to fight and the techniques that evolved were based on the pragmatic realities of survival.  During these early eras, the military arts were studied with the sole purpose of destroying the enemy. Bujutsu is the application of military science and art to defending and attacking an opponent—Bujutsu is the pragmatic application of violence.

Power was consolidated (in Japan this happened after the battle of Sekigahara 1600 A.D.) by Tokugawa Ieyasu as Shogun who founded the peaceful Tokugawa era. This parallel can be seen in many cultures, the warrior class began to pursue interest in other aspects of military thought to fill a void and justify its own existence during peace times.

Budo - Bushido definition and kanjiBushido: The ruling Tokugawa Shoguns also needed to control the military class and gave them an outlet for their energy by educating them. This was a code of conduct expected of a warrior stressing the concept of never pausing to consider the nature, significance, or effects of a superior’s command. The concept today has been romanticized to the extent that many do not distinguish it from Budo.

Bushido was standardized, strictly adhered to, and formulated by those in authority to maintain control. Those who stressed the role of Bushido in reality espoused the role of the soldier, a blind obedience to orders, and not that of a warrior—someone who made up his own determination of whether to act or not. Bushido still is and has in the past been prone to fanaticism. During World War II, Bushido was used to create national fervor and military fanaticism that kept some Japanese hiding in jungles long after the conflict was over.

The ideals of Bushido, however, do have a place in our study of Budo. It is through Bushido’s sometimes harsh self-discipline that the realizations of Budo bear fruit. This is a seeming paradox. To gain freedom (in technique) you must enslave yourself to rigid discipline (training). Like a concert pianist, the Budoka must practice with dedication to enjoy the freedom and fluidity needed in both combat and music.

Despite its potential for misuse and fanaticism, major tenets of Bushido include what are known as the seven virtues:

• Rectitude
• Courage
• Benevolence
• Respect
• Honesty
• Honor
• Loyalty

These attributes are worthy of any Budoka. Today, Bushido alone is considered an incomplete way to achieve self-realization, but the discipline and training demanded by Bushido puts one into position to have a better understanding of Budo.

Budo: The term Do comes from Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist (Tao is the Chinese equivalent of Japanese Do [Way]) philosophies. All suggest implicitly or explicitly that the pursuit of any worthy endeavor leads to spiritual liberation.

The pursuit can be anything: dancing, garden designing, tea ceremony, swordsmanship, etc. Once something is taken up and becomes a serious undertaking, it is called Do. In the case of Budo, the serious undertaking is the study of the Military Way.

Dreager’s Classical Budo (1973), an excellent reference to the historical origins of Budo, states:

“The creation of the classical Budo was indicated by the nominal change of the ideogram for Jutsu, ‘art,’ in the word ‘Bujutsu to Do, ‘way.’  This change heralded men’s desire to cultivate an awareness of their spiritual nature through the exercise of disciplines that would bring them to a state of self-realization. It is this goal that underlies the major difference between a classical martial discipline labeled ‘Jutsu and one termed ‘Do.'”

After examining Bujutsu, Bushido and Budo, we can see that the first two are subsets of the last—Budo has evolved to include the former.

We love the technical art of Bujutsu, finding better and more efficient ways of improving our technique. We understand the dedication and commitment required to become proficient, and have to overcome our fear through the discipline of Bushido. Budo allows us to find and understand, in a deeper sense, our relationship with our path in life.  Budo is a ‘Way’ of life.

Budo Today

Today’s concept of Budo evolved in part from precursors such as Bujutsu and Bushido. Budo however, is not static, but rather dynamic, and constantly evolves. Kata change as each generation learns them. In some paths, the knowledge is enhanced, in others it is degraded. On top of all this, your understanding of Budo changes as you travel on your martial journey.

So how do you find the path that is right for you?

There are some guiding principles that can help you answer this.

Respecting the Past

Consider tradition with some respect for the hard lessons learned by actual combat. The past offers clues to your study to help you determine if you are on the right path.

Does the path you follow respect the study of solid Bujutsu?

As an example, modern sport while very important is still a sport. Too much focus on sport only narrows your path. While this may be an important aspect for you at certain times in your journey, there are other areas to study as well. Don’t get me wrong here. Sport is critical for developing many positive attributes in youth and elite athletes. My point here is are you learning combat or sparring? And what do you want to learn?

Does your Kata have depth?

Is there history in your Kata that gives you room to study. Make sure you are studying something that has not been distorted or creatively made up with no meaning. Dig into your Kata, its history, origin, geography, its variations among different styles of martial art. Assess your Kata critically.

Does the path you are following demand discipline and study?

Is your dojo a social place or a place for disciplined training? It should be both, in a balance that fosters personal improvement. If too skewed one way or another, why? What effect will this have on your personal development?

Value pragmatic and well-executed Bujutsu. Value the discipline and commitment it takes to do it well. Improve on it when possible without changing it into an esoteric art that has little real meaning.

Understanding the Present

It is easy to think of the enemy as being outside of yourself.  Today’s Budo has given you an even more worthy opponent—Yourself—and if you dig deeper you realize that there is no enemy or self, there is just what some have called Tao.

Is your path only one dimensional?

Are you locked in only technical modes of thinking? Budo has a depth and breadth that can challenge anyone at multiple levels.  Some specialize in unarmed or armed technical disciplines; others expand their study to calligraphy and the tea ceremony. Some can practice a lifetime and still feel like they haven’t penetrated very deep; others manage to pierce the very core of Budo. As you study you realize that Budo expands into other areas

To give you some perspective, there is a saying “Ken Zen Ichi Ryo,” which means “the sword and Zen are the same”—that through the study of the sword (Ken) one can achieve the same level of enlightenment as the study of Zen. This statement indicates that there are many dimensions that can be considered and explored. In this case, the link between Zen and Budo

Can you apply what you learn in different contexts?

Can you take fighting principles and apply them to other aspects of your life? Most of us live in relatively peaceful societies. Learning to apply martial concepts in different contexts makes us grow. For example, learning to apply pre-emptive, and reactive timing concepts (pre-emptive – Sen no Sen, reactive – Tai no Sen and Go no Sen) to other situations.

“A stitch in time saves nine” is really using a pre-emptive (Sen no Sen) approach to avoid a bigger tear in your clothes. This mundane example if considered carefully should give you many ways to lever this principle in many more interesting and complex ways.

Does you path make you a better person?

Are you focused only on winning by beating another person at his expense?—a zero sum game—or are you winning by creating a partner in the Dojo that can help you learn? What is winning?

Careful what you think here, you can have a tactical victory and a strategic loss at the same time. It all depends on what you set out to achieve. For example if my goal is to protect my family from an assault by two opponents, you can completely kill one (a decisive tactical victory) while letting the other assault your family (a strategic loss). Considering subjects such as what winning is can’t help but make you grow. I’ve only used the concept of winning here as an illustration.

Thinking about these things allows you to utilize these concepts in the boardroom and family life. Sometimes letting student throw you or your young son beat you at something is the surest way to create confidence and desire to learn, a strategy build on success not failure.

The Future of Budo

I have no idea what the future of Budo will be like. My own thinking is that Budo is a subset of Strategy (Heiho) and that is the avenue I am pursuing. Others will no doubt have other avenues to explore. Most importantly, I think the ideal of Budo—that of becoming a better person—involves a well rounded approach to the multiple facets of Budo, and to minimize distortions caused by focusing too tightly on single facets (i.e. Bujutsu only, or sport only, or meditation only).

Budo - Enso conceptI’ll end this article using the concept of the circle or Roundness (Enso) found in many Zen paintings. If you focus only on a few strengths (left figure shown below), when you face your opponent, he will always attempt to evade your strengths and target your weakness. If you concentrate on building on your weaknesses to become less “pointy” as in the second figure, there will be much less for the opponent to exploit.

The Zen ideal of Enso symbolizes lacking nothing and nothing in excess—when the mind is free to let the body and spirit create whatever is needed under the circumstances you find yourself in. This ideal of a “well rounded” person that exposes little for the opponent to avoid or exploit is also the ideal of Budo.

Budo takes the points of Bujutsu, Bushido, Training, Mental Status, Psychology, etc. and rounds them into an ideal that we all strive for.


Budo - rounding out your path


by Rick Rowell

Without Reason, Inconsistent, Wasteful – Muri, Mura, Muda

Without Reason (Muri), Inconsistent (Mura) and a Man Without a Horse (Muda)

Principles (Ri) and Practice (Ji) are a dynamic pair of terms familiar in Buddhism, but also used in Budo. Ri is a principle, reason or truth—a higher order of understanding.  Ri comes from inspiration, intuition and inductive reasoning. This book is about Riron, or ‘Theory.’Muri Mura Muda - Ri Ji kanji definition

Ji is a concrete thing such as a particular technique or movement—it is a manifestation of Ri. Principles (Ri) of combat distilled from engagements and experience are transformed into concrete things such as the Kata you study, a particular technique, or stance. Both Principle (Ri) and Practice (Ji) are indispensable. You can have all the understanding in the world, but if you cannot apply it, then you are crippled. Conversely, having all the ability to do something, but having no idea what to do is equally crippling. Behind each and every technique is an underlying truth, principle or reason. If you find the Principle (Ri) it will make your technique stronger. By practicing technique, you may discover the truth behind it.

No Reason, Inconsistency, and Not Using Your Horse – Muri, Mura, and Muda

While training in Japan, one morning I was introduced to some terms that I had never heard before. While practicing Basics (Kihon) and Kata, Soke would look at me and say “Muda” or “Muri.” I questioned him about the terms, but he only gave a brief explanation. I think he wanted me training during the morning workout. With my curiosity piqued, I pinned him down after lunch and got an explanation of what turned out to be everyday expressions to the Japanese, but which opened new doors to my understanding of Karate.

In fact, these three words were probably a significant driver for me to pursue the research presented in this book. These three terms are used to describe different ways time and resources are wasted. They are even used in automobile production plants like Toyota to help streamline their operations, but they offer a very penetrating way to look at your martial art.

No Reason/No Principle – Muri

If you try to do something Without  Principle (Muri), you are trying to create result with no structure.Muri - definition and Kanji
As an example, trying to reproduce an exact copy of the Eiffel tower by nailing a bunch of 2×4’s together, would likely end up in failure. If you understood the concept of compressive loads of such a tall structure, and understood the limitations of 2×4’s, you might have a better chance of being successful. You would make larger beams from boards nailed together near the base to support the compressive load of the structure above. Alternatively, you could opt for a material that would better support these kinds of loads.

Doing something Without Reason (Muri) is like trying to create the maximum potential in a punch without understanding simple things like proper joint sequence, stance, hip rotation, or that you have to close your fist, etc. To force a result with No Reasoning (Muri) is ultimately wasteful, tiring, and totally dangerous against an experienced opponent, because he will find the Gaps (Suki) in your armor and exploit them.

Being unreasonable mentally and emotionally also leads to waste. Being unreasonable in letting go of baggage leads to all sorts of unhappiness. Being unreasonable in interactions with people by always trying to get what you want leads to alienation. You are missing the Principle (Ri) and trying to force a result (Ji).

Muri is a great concept because it suggests that you should look at your technique and examine it in several ways:

  • Is the technique beyond your current capabilities?
  • It allows you to search for the reason or principle behind the movement or technique.
  • If you understand the reasoning behind one technique, it may have wider application to others (using inductive reasoning).
  • By analyzing your failure you can find the principles behind your technique

When my Sensei says “Muri” to me now, I understand it means I haven’t found the principle or meaning behind it, or that it is currently beyond my capabilities. He has given me a gift, because he has pointed to the root of my problem—understanding the Principles or Reason (Ri) behind the technique.

Inconsistency – Mura

Mura can refer to an Inconsistent movement, action or way of thinking.Mura - Definition and Kanji

As an example, imagine thinking about eating ice cream when you are trying to deliver the hardest punch you can. This seemingly trivial example is used to illustrate that the mind and body are inconsistent. Other examples are hitting before you finish your step forward and separating the components of the body so they are not in synchronization.

Stepping forward with large upward and downward motion wastes time and detracts from your main purpose, which is to translate your body forward.  Punching hard with my right hand and weak with my left is Inconsistent (Mura). Acing your art class and not your math class is Mura. Telling someone you will meet them at 3:00 pm and not showing up until 4:00 pm is Mura.

Applying a principle using one technique and not another is a great example of Mura. The message here is to learn to be consistent in technique and application—to deliver a proper execution at any time and any place that you choose in the circumstances you find yourself in.

Not Using Your Pack Horse – Muda

Muda refers to doing things in excess of what is needed, which could involve time, energy, length of the movement, etc.Muda - definition and Kanji

It was only when my Sensei got a Japanese dictionary and showed me the characters that I understood its meaning. Muda literally means “No Pack Horse.” This does not necessarily mean that you do not have a horse, but that you have one and are not using it. It is like you are carrying a heavy bag on your shoulders while your horse walks beside you unburdened.

An example of Muda might be using a Shifting (Sabaki) motion that is too large.  When the opponent steps in with a punch, you step back too far to be able to counterattack quickly.

Muri, Mura and Muda give us a means to analyze our technique. Next time you are sweating in the Dojo and just cannot figure out what is wrong, ask yourself if it is Without Principle, Inconsistent or Where’s the horse?

Muri, Mura and Muda are ways that let you examine the practical application (Ji) in each and every technique, action and movement. It goes well beyond just your martial art. Wasting time and resources are important concerns for runners who want to make an efficient stride, and power skaters to increase the efficiency of their leg strokes. You can use these three concepts to analyze relationships in your life, how much you eat and why you fail at calculus.

The key is to search for the Principle (Ri) behind the technique. This entire text is about Ri. If you glimpse the Ox in one punch out of a thousand—work to make it two, then three. Reduce the inefficiencies and understand the principles and, as we will see, the ultimate journey ends with Ri-ai—a unification of principles.

Miyamoto Musashi had something to say about understanding the difference between Ri and Ji—and the truth that they are inseparable:

“…if popular ways are examined with the correct principles, it can be seen that those which lean toward the long sword, those that use the short sword as their principle, those which lean toward the strong or the weak, and those which are attuned to the overall picture or the fine details are all distorted and prejudiced.”

For my part, I tend to be a man with a horse who does not know how to use it.

Principle and Practice Are One – Ri Gi Ittai

In reality, Ri and Ji cannot survive without the other. Each is part of a dualistic pair with the other. One who has collapsed this duality and integrated both Principle and Practice has attained a high understanding of Budo. Ri Gi Ittai is one of a number of unifying principles in Budo.

Excerpted From: Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell