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Why Keiko Matters

Anyone committed to serious training in the bugei, and certainly those of us who have been engaged for decades, eventually arrive at the question: why?

This is not something simply related to second thoughts generated by the wear and tear of training—hello judo shoulder, Shotokan fingers, kendo hip—but a more philosophical one. What are our motivations for practice and how do they fit into a mature sense of purpose in the world? I phrase the question this way because, as many of us realize, martial training simply conceived of as an endeavor connected to fighting ability, or skill acquisition or fitness only scratches the surface of the implications of real training. And if we haven’t taken the next step in self-reflection—yes, training for fighting skills but to what end—then in my opinion we’re not engaging in enough reflection about ourselves and our relation to the world.

There are a multitude of valid reasons to train, and some of them can relate to the need for developing good fighting skills on the part of soldiers or law-enforcement personnel, or individuals facing physical threats on a regular basis. But in these cases, the question of why is already answered in some sense—to make you a more competent and capable public servant or to enable you to live your wider life with more self-confidence. But for those of us engaged in the more esoteric sword arts of the Japanese martial tradition (one example), the answer to the question why needs to be articulated. And I’ll admit that there may be almost as many answers to this question as there are kenshi, but here is mine.

Keiko is one of the most common terms I’ve experienced that refer to training. Others include renshu, tanren and shugyo. Each word has a slightly different meaning, but all have some emphasis on the concept that activity has a reflective dimension and/or relates to skill development as a phenomenon that leads to something more significant than mere physical ability.

Keiko means to reflect on the old. In this context, it means to benefit from the knowledge that has been passed on to us. So keiko is engagement with a tradition in the technical sense—a body of knowledge and insight that has been passed down to us. In its explicit connection to community and ancestral insight, keiko seems to me to be both deeply important and completely opposed to the dominant trends in American culture—a culture fascinated with ephemera and instant gratification, with little sense of history and our place in it. It’s a consumer culture, targeting our basest impulses and encouraging an immature and solipsistic approach to life.

So why does keiko matter? In the first place, we can say that the cultivation of a particular skill through physical/mental integration is psychologically important to us as human beings. “Flow” experiences of various types have been esteemed and sought after by human beings in many times and places. At some fundamental level, we’re wired for keiko. And in contemporary society, where so much seems disconnected, and fragmented, where so much of our culture appears designed to distract and not engage us, keiko is a way to pursue a more complete way of being fully human.

Keiko is also an exercise in deferred gratification. It’s a truism in martial training that nothing worthwhile comes easy. This is a testament to the complexity of the systems we pursue, but is also an eminently Confucian sentiment: the ability to work at a long-term goal is character forming. It’s also deeply contrarian to a consumer society focused on having it your way. Now.

Finally, the tradition of an art or system and its rigid standards teach us a valuable lesson about the value of community and our individual capacity for self-delusion. Our practice is built on the foundation of experience and insight from those who have gone before us as well as the current community of teachers and students. Our individual progress in keiko is conditioned by our ability to absorb and reflect the tradition and its methods. And this can be a difficult thing, since it requires a commitment to standards that exist outside our own head. In a cultural environment that routinely offers “alternative facts” and “fake” news tailored to appeal to individual preferences, keiko reminds us that there are no alternative facts in the dojo.

Keiko is therefore, a call to serious engagement with a discipline, to a commitment to something larger than yourself, and an approach to life that is reflective, challenging, and mature in its appreciation for things larger than ourselves as well as an awareness of our individual shortcomings.

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