Intoku - Practice virtue in the shadows
by Víctor López Bondía (2015)

Some months ago, while reading a post on Michael Clarke's blog, I came across the concept of "Intoku". Clarke Sensei didn't explain its meaning, but he did point to the idea that Karate, if practiced as Budo, leads to Intoku. This drew my attention, so I did some research and I found out that the term is made up of two kanji; namely, (secret/shadow) and (virtue). "Secret charity" would be a proper translation, but I prefer to think of it as a piece of advice which encourages us to "practice virtue in the shadows" (even when nobody is watching). I found it quite inspirational and a very nice ideal to try to live up to.

Masterfully brushed by Pascal Krieger Sensei

Mottos like this are the ones which arguably make martial arts "ways of life" rather than sheer fighting methods. However, whenever I find myself pondering the topic of moral values as an integral part of martial arts, I can't help being a little skeptical. Sure, every practitioner worth their salt will be keen on rambling about how devoting yourself to Budo will "develop your character" and turn you into no less than a saint but, is that really so? Do martial arts really have that capacity to improve a person beyond their physical ability, or is it just something we practitioners like to believe and pay lip service to?

It is reasonable to think that martial arts started out as nothing more than a means to overcome an opponent in physical combat. But in time, human values most probably began to gradually permeate the fighting arts as they evolved. Karate in particular cannot be traced back to ancient times, but the well-known quote by 'Ti' Junsoku dates back to as early as the 17th century.

No matter how you may excel in the art of ti and in your scholastic endeavours,
nothing is more important than your humanity as observed in daily life.

'Ti' Junsoku
Shin Gi Tai (p.3)

What is it about Budo that makes it something "special", I mean, different from other arts and activities? Well, I guess it's the fact that martial arts deal with violence, self-preservation, and how we interact with others (whether we create or avoid conflict with them). A set of sound values is needed to keep violence under control and put martial skills to good use rather than misusing them as means of destruction.

Nowadays we are not warriors, a martial art is just another tool in the hands of people, and they decide what they make of it. If one considers his martial art a sport, a recreational activity, or even a professional career, then that's exactly what it is. At this point it is worth taking another look at Clarke Sensei's original statement - Karate, if practiced as Budo, leads to Intoku - and highlight the part "if practiced as Budo". If what you practice is not pursued as a martial way, then whatever it is, it is not Budo; so don't fool yourself (nor those you might be teaching) since none of the attributes of Budo will be guaranteed.

Therefore, to the question "do martial arts really enclose a set of moral values?", I would have to reply "it depends on the individual". If you find in your practice lessons which encourage you to try to polish your flaws as a person as hard as you try to polish your martial technique, and you are determined to be a living example of those values, then yes, your budo of choice has values, but only because you make that possible through your attitude and your behaviour. In this case we can say your budo is part of your education. On the contrary, if all you care about is training hard and sweating, and you are happy believing that's all there is, then yes, that's all there is indeed... for you.

Regrettably, the claim "just training is not enough" is supported by the fact that there's no shortage of practitioners and instructors whose behaviour not only falls short of the most basic rules of propriety but often leaves a lot to be desired. The higher the rank, the higher the responsibility to set a good example, but more often than not, this isn't the case. Having met and witnessed such bad examples myself, I stopped looking up to "celebrity instructors" and "sensei" who always ended up letting themselves down in one way or another. This could be considered living proof that martial arts do not really develop one's character in any significant way, don't you think? Well, I came to the conclusion that decades of training, a very high rank, and even outstanding skill don't necessarily go hand in hand with a role model. These days all I expect to find behind a karateka is a nice and decent person, and whoever proves to be unworthy of that simple description, it's either because they never really learnt anything beyond the punching and kicking, or what is worse; they overlooked all those lessons.

The never-ending battle between good and evil takes place within every one of us. We are constantly deciding, with our deeds, which one prevails over the other, so it is important that we always try to make the right choices. Flawed human beings as we are, it is often too easy to let negligence and selfishness lead our actions (and inactions). But we have great capacity for good too, and that we need to foster so that it always outweighs our shortcomings. We need to remember that it is in fact our deeds what defines who we are, and no matter how nice we might think we already are, there's always room for improvement.

In our training, we are always trying to improve our technique and skill but, what about our character? How exactly do we improve our personality through the study of a martial art? It seems to me that the importance of physical training and its methods are always as clear as a day, but we tend to take everything else for granted and/or don't really know how to "practice" it. What "lessons", "drills" and "tools" are made available for the students to work on their character?

Barrett Sensei advises to recite the dojo kun out loud, even when we are alone, as part of our training, for "it must be practiced as much as any kata". When I do so as the very first part of my daily training, usually in the evenings, I have an opportunity to take stock of my day and see whether or not I've lived up to each statement. If we hang the dojo kun on the wall, or any other piece of calligraphy for that matter, but never think about it, it might as well be a picture of a beautiful landscape. None of the items found in a dojo is supposed to be just a piece of decoration. Every picture, kanji and statue is there for a reason; to inspire and teach something. We need to actively ponder and try to apply all those teachings, otherwise they become meaningless.

On the first Shinsokai gasshuku I attended in October 2011, we were taken to the beach to train "on location". After training, Barrett Sensei handed out some plastic bags and invited us to perform soji, i.e. clean the beach. We had been taking advantage of the place, using it as our dojo for a little while, so we shouldn't miss the opportunity to give something back and try to leave it in a better condition than we had found it. For some reason that lesson has lingered inside me ever since, and whenever I find myself at the beach or a park, if I come across an empty can or a plastic bottle on the ground, I pick them up and throw them into a bin. Of course it's not my litter, and the cleaning services would do the job anyway, but that's not the point; it's all about a personal exercise to practice being proactive and not missing opportunities to do a little good deed. I'm not the most proactive person, but if I come to realize that and I'm willing to take steps to fix it, then I have the chance to become a better version of myself.

Once a year our group carries out a "charity challenge" and we raise some money to donate to a good cause. Sensei says that "true karateka are givers rather than takers" and that such unselfish actions are "very good for the soul". I've sometimes heard things like "if I won the lottery I would donate part of it to charity"... A commendable idea but, do we really need to be rich to be able to give something? Can't we really afford to let go a small amount? How about other kinds of solidarity like, for example, blood donation? That's free... We need to be strong enough to not let excuses prevent us from doing what is right.

These are just some examples of how my Karate training and more importantly the lessons and the example provided by my sensei have inspired me to try to be more humble, thoughtful, helpful and unselfish outside the dojo. We all spend far many more hours outside the dojo than inside it, so any small achievement in real life is actually more important than any physical feat we can perform on the dojo floor.

To me, "Intoku" is a reminder that, if I ever want to improve as a person, I need to constantly practice "virtue" in my daily life, in the same way I train every day to improve as a karateka. It's a personal quest that could be likened to the nature of martial arts, which is that of private endeavor ("in the shadows").

Víctor López Bondía
July 2015

I'd like to thank Pascal Krieger Sensei for an example of his art as master calligrapher, and also his student, my good friend and fellow budoka, Fernando Gómez, for acting as the middleman.

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”