Shugyō and Keiko Martial Arts Practice

samurai shugyo

Practicing and PRACTICING

There are two ideas about learning in the martial arts. I’d like to talk about them: Keiko 稽古, and Shugyō 修行.

When I was young, I recall seeing movies where the martial arts master stands under a waterfall in the icy winter morning, focusing on deep breathing and seemingly simple movements of his arms. I thought, "Wow! That's some spectacular training."  Now that was exciting. Cinemattically you can’t beat those types of scenes depicting martial arts practice.

Even sitting under a tree and deeply meditating. We can imagine the grand visions or the flashbacks to get these ah-ha type moments. Then there’s the warrior training with his sensei or senior members. Sweating..grunting..doing things over and over until he ‘gets it’. Or other shugyō training montages showing his progress from inept to adept. He used to trip over that rake. Well now he and that rake are one. Look out bad guys, or un-neatly piled autumn leaves!

Are all the comics and movies, and even in-dojo stories correct about shugyō and deep austere practices? We have two words, Keiko 稽古 and Shugyo 修行. Maybe we have misconceptions about them. I’d like to just break down the words from their Kanji.

martial arts keiko

Keiko in Japanese


Keiko 稽古 has two kanji, the first meaning ‘to think or to consider’. 稽 Also known as 考える kangaeru. The second simply  meaning ‘old’古. Yeah thats the same ko as in kobudo 古武道 or kobujutsu 古武術. We can use keiko even about violin practice. Our martial arts attire are called also referred to as keikogi 稽古着. When we perform keiko we are refining and considering the things that came before us. The teachings. We are practicing. Like learning how to write, look at the letters that were formed long ago, copy them, and repeat, repeat. We are taught something that has come before us and we copy it. Then reflect on it. We look at the past and think of what we should do. To consider what came before.


Shyugyo 修行 is also made up of two kanji. 修 shyu  meaning ascetic practices or discipline. And gyo 行 which means journey, going or it can even mean conduct. Shyu 修 is also derived from a buddhist word. The sanskrit is Sadhana. When you are applying mind and intelligence in a skillful manner towards a spiritual goal.

Shyugyo for Buddhist monks (referred to as angya 行脚 ), for example is one form of practice. It seems that before the Edo period( 1603-1868) traveling and undergoing intense training was popular for bushi. Musha-shugyō is the term used for martial artists performing shugyō. Yamauchi Genbei was a samurai in 1542 that popularized the idea of musha shugyō 武者修行. He traveled to many kenjutsu and yarijutsu teachers to learn and increase his skill. No only increasing his skills but also beefed up his resumé.  During the Edo period such activities died down a bit. At the end of the Edo period during the bakumatsu period (1853-1867) it again become more popular. It was from monks practices that the idea of sitting under waterfalls or training alone at a remote shrine got its foothold in the martial arts community. It is an express line, some believe, from regular keiko to some kind of ah-ha moment.
Are we looking at extreme shyugyo the wrong way?

Is going off to the waterfall going to really be beneficial in this day and age?

Does participating in some intensive weekend program once a year or less actually benefit us? Akin to visiting a one day seminar about some self help issue and having a small part in the clouds, seeing the light but then going back to daily life and things going dark again. This happens and we’ve all most likely experienced this. I know I have. These are temporary moments that do not have the strength to up-root the fetters that are preventing us from increasing our spiritual energy.

The benefit to real shyugyo is sustained application of thought and mental energy. It is about keeping the trajectory. It's quite normal during any kind of shyugyo or meditation that the mind strays. That's not defeat. Thats the time when we must bend it back towards our goal with our awareness. The point I want to make is that we don’t need to be dipping our private parts into icy waters and reciting secret passages to get some liberation or enlightenment. Such ideas of shyugyo are not meant to break us open and fill us with the power of the universe. Esoteric practices are often cited by people as short cuts. The results produced by such things are flimsy at best.

Where to practice shugyō?

Getting to practice in the midst of your daily life is shyugyo as well. Going  to practice when you’d rather binge watch some tv show, or play with your friends. Handling difficult situations within training with people we don’t like or those that start trouble. Those are aspects of shyugyo too. A constant applied mind to these situations will get us further than a weekend of hypothermia. There are of course some benefits to pushing yourself into the uncomfortable areas. I’m not saying there’s nothing at all to be gained from that. But open your eyes wider to what shyugyo really is.

Every day life is our true shugyõ. Living it correctly with a mind imbued with compassion for ourselves and others. Kindness towards our mistakes and others. Concentration on our short comings and weakness. Admission of our own mistakes and understanding why we transgressed. Bolstering the parts of us that need strengthening and developing the wisdom to be wholesome and learn our art as correctly as we can. Constant mindfulness in and outside of the dojo is our ever present shugyō. This meditation (mindfulness) leads to wisdom. Wisdom leads to greater understanding of ourselves and our arts.

©2018 S.F.Radzikowski

Head Sword Instructor

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