Bun Bu Ryo Do: Cultivation and Power

The Unified Field Theory of Martial Arts

Bun Bu shodo by Sakiyama Sogen

Ethics, tactics and metaphysics form a unified field of action. Martial artists who regard them as separate are at a disadvantage. These three dimensions cannot be separated.  If you try to separate them, becoming an expert in one and neglecting the others, you may advance temporarily, but you will soon lose. If you use these as a single system you will prevail. 

Funakoshi’s Crisis Intervention

The Karate-Do Kyohan is a concise and comprehensive technical manual. It is meticulous and accessible and, without confusing beginners, opens the door to deep understanding for practitioners with the experience to grasp what is there.  

In it, Funakoshi Gichin bookends his technical material with personal comments. At the beginning he explains his motive for writing the book: the urgent need to arrest the decline of karate culture, and to preserve it intact for future generations. 

At the end of the book, in a brief, two-page note, he lays out the moral and philosophical context for his karate. He draws on the great streams of intellectual and practical knowledge which informed his life and the world into which he was born. 

In these two pages he quotes the Mencius – (The Works of Mencius, Book 6, Part 2, Section 15, paragraph 2) one of the “Four Books,” the essential educational curriculum for leaders and officials in China for 700 years. 

He references the Confucian ideal of the Junzi, with its emphasis on benevolence as the essential human value.

He cites Sun Tzu’s famous formula on the critical role of intelligence in marital victory, from the Art of War.

He references the Kenpo Hakku – the Eight Verses on Karate – from the BuBishi, a key source of karate techniques and ideas in the dojo culture of his youth.

He references the subtle skill needed to discern the seeds of coming events – citing the appearance of animals and of sages – again from the Four Books.

He closes with a reminder of the dynamic polarity in which we fight and live, directing his readers’ attention to an issue of prime concern in budo, the issue of suki – the gap in defense.

Why does he give this philosophical advice in a book devoted to technique? 

These were the texts and ideas which guided him. He learned from them. He used their principles. He wants to share them with his readers and students. He wants to put the technical instruction in the book into context – both of action and of meaning. He wants to form an ethical basis for the practice of martial arts, integrated into tactical principles which apply to training and to the proper use of force. 

The traditional mode of writing a persuasive essay, which he used, is to select and organize quotations from authoritative sources and build your argument from there – so there is no question that the author is “making things up,” but rather that he is relying on proven and accepted wisdom to make his case. 

Still, it is his experience, wisdom and conviction which inform every word of his brief essay. 

He feels the responsibility to include this philosophical conclusion because – as any teacher, fighter or leader can tell you – we all need guidelines to direct our skill and use our passion wisely.  

In his era, as in ours, when passions were high, it was necessary to remind the ardent young men who studied with him, that while the judicious use of force is sometimes necessary, it needs to be matched with a humane respect for individual agency and dignity, in order to have a good effect, and not devolve into darkness and oppression. 

His presentation followed a long tradition of leaders, warrior scholars, and cultivated people who balanced the principles of Bun 文and Bu 武 in their lives and work.

Bun Bu Ryo Do

When we hear the phrase “Bun Bu Ryo Do” we may hear an ideal of self-cultivation, the ideal of the Confucian junzi, “gentleman” or “superior man” as it is sometimes translated. Its significance is much broader than this, applying to organization management, statecraft, empire-building and beyond.

Bun Bu Ryo Do is sometimes translated as “The way of both pen and sword.” That’s poetic but incomplete. Following victory in a war of conquest there follows a period of consolidation and structure-building, to assure that the conquest will endure, not slip away as the threat of force that holds it together is released. Violence is expensive and destructive. It may succeed in the short term but it is not sustainable.

The “way of the pen” is not limited to literature or scholarship; it is not a quaint relic of the Confucian junzi ideal. The “way of war” is not just ‘fighting.” The way of war encompasses techniques, tactics, operations, strategy, logistics, technology, planning, mission, morale, communication, intelligence, leadership and more. Bun Bu Ryo Do is a simple expression. Its implications are profound.

The characters Bun Bu formed the name of the 42nd emperor of Japan, although they were pronounced Monmu: 文武天皇. Monmu Tenno reigned in the 7th and 8th century.  His name was chosen to convey his commitment to excel in both military arts and the arts of civil life. We know the Bun Bu ideal was of interest to Japan’s ruling samurai elite, as it is an issue in the world’s first novel, the 13th century Tale of the Genji.

Certainly it was known long before that. How long ago did people discover that if you only know how to fight you will be used by people who can think? Or that if you only know how to think and talk you will be subject to the will of people who are skilled in the use of force? Both coercion and persuasion are necessary for full-spectrum leadership and for personal agency. That is why Bun Bu Ryo Do matters to us.

Scholar Thomas D. Conlan: The terms “civil” bun () and “military” bu () reflect changing views of governance in Japan… the seventeenth century witnessed the resurgence of the bun and bu ideal as a metaphor for governance, albeit one where expertise in civilian and military arts became redefined as the prerogative of Tokugawa warriors. 

Martial skill, personal courage, planning and communication are comprised in Bun Bu.  The formulation is Japanese. The insight is universal. For example, Alexander the Great, King Ashoka, Genghis Khan, the American Revolutionaries, and the first generations of their descendants, knew it well. They, as so many others, used the art of war to conquer, and the arts of civil administration, law, philosophy, religion, science and rhetoric to consolidate and structure what they won. Violence is exhausting and destructive. It may succeed in taking territory but it will not suffice to hold it. That requires Bun Bu Ryo Do in action.

The same principle applies to any ambitious undertaking, personal or professional. Not only in expansion but in defense: Bun and Bu are both essential. 

In personal life – in building a family, pursuing a profession, competing in athletics and in community responsibility – exploration and ambition are phases. They will be followed by shaping, deepening and refining. When there is nothing beyond ambition then people live like addicts, always seeking, never satisfied. 

When there is nothing beyond ambition, ambition leads to nothing.

Once you understand that Bun and Bu, including ethics, tactics and metaphysics, function as a unified field of action you have an advantage, whether you are a martial artist, defender of your home, family or community, an oligarch, or an imperial conqueror. 

Martial artists: We devote ourselves to training in our own style. But the lessons from history outlined here apply directly to what we do, in the dojo, on the street, and in all aspects of our lives.

Note to the oligarchs and aspiring world conquerors reading this: I know you are busy, but please do not skip ahead. Read on. The insight contained here comes with a warning. 

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great was a genius in war. Coming over a hill he could look at a landscape he’d never seen before, instantly grasp the significance of a bend in the river, the slope of a riverbank, the tactical potential revealed by a slight depression running at the edge of a valley. He could interpret his enemy’s order of battle, anticipate their plans, and quickly form his own. 

He overwhelmed much larger armies on their home turf. His soldiers followed him into the unknown, down rivers into unnamed seas, faced world powers and walled cities, and subdued them all. He did it again and again. His brilliant battles, fought in the 4th century BCE, are still standard curriculum in War Colleges around the world. 

Why did he do that? What did he do with it when he got it?

Alexander wanted it all. He was ferocious and calculating, but that’s not all he was. He was fun to hang out with. He was a real people person. He conquered the largest empire of his day, Persia, by cunning and force. But he ruled the empire by embracing its own cultural forms, keeping their bureaucracy, their bureaucrats, their religion and customs. His will was fire and iron. His methods worked like water or silk.

The Persian people kept their jobs, their homes and their livelihoods. All he wanted was their money, power and allegiance. He made sure he got that. He installed his best friends in top spots throughout his empire, appointing his leading general Ptolemy ruler of Egypt. Ptolemy, a Greek, ruled in Egyptian style, assuring that the Greeks remained atop the pyramid of power, and that the lion’s share of the wealth and geostrategic benefit accrued to them. No riddle there. 

Ptolemy succeeded in holding Egypt for the Macedonians but there was no more empire. Alexander’s death opened a sukithat was rapidly exploited by his enemies, and by his ambitious friends.

Generations of war led to fragmentation of the empire. Lands that are now called Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia, Pakistan, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, India, and beyond – all which were once “united” by force, in Alexander’s empire, went off on their own. No one who followed Alexander had the skill to rule in time of peace. 

The same issues appear in martial arts. Charismatic figures appear and disappear. Fads come and go. Alliances form and dissolve. Organizations need wise leadership, structure, purpose, and equity. Leaders need to distribute benefit. Victors need magnanimity. The vanquished will rise to compete another day. 

The same principle works in comabtives: Let’s say we are in a confrontation. Maybe we will knock out our assailant, or incapacitate him, or maybe he will run. What about if we restrain him, and have a thrashing, enraged drug- or hate-fueled nut on our hands? How is it that one person walks down the street with a presence that commands respect, and another’s inspires attack?

All of us will be called upon to read an opponent, whether in kumite or on the street. All of us will need to choose the right tactics, choose between aggression and deception, de-escalation, evasion or stealth. Bun and Bu matter to us. In our groups. And in personal defense. 

Emperor Ashoka

Ashoka’s message in Greek and Aramaic

Kings wage war. They expand their frontiers. For millennia that was in the job description. Like corporate CEOs or the guy who owns the local gym, they always had to think about how to grow. 

Ashoka was the third emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty of India, one of the world’s largest empires in the 3rd century BCE. He was not content. He was not like a lion, who attacks when he is hungry. He is not like an addict, who robs when he needs a fix. He was like a man possessed, who attacks because he can.

He made the decision to attack Kalingka, the neighboring kingdom. He knew he would win. His armies marched. He faced the army defending their homeland and crushed them, slaughtered every one of them. He thought it would be a happy day. But when he walked out to the battlefield to survey his new conquest, he felt horror, then revulsion, then remorse.

He waded through the green fields, now soaked in blood and littered with the bodies of a hundred thousand slaughtered enemy soldiers, their horses and elephants. 

He reflected on his new empire, stretching far across northern India. He thought about what it could be. He devoted the wealth of the nation to spreading religious teaching everywhere – non-violence, kindness and peace. His new empire recovered and flourished. It endured for centuries. His rock edicts – 30 carved pillars erected in what are now India, Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan – are still standing. They are inscribed with the message from the king to the people, inscribed in stone, for all time, a guide for a new way of life, intended to transform the devastation of conquest into a civil society. 

With his support these ideas and values spread from India and soon took root and flourished in the lands that are now Pakistan and Afghanistan, Russia, Central Asia, China, Tibet, Japan, Thailand, Burma, Mongolia, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and beyond. 

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan united the warring tribes and nations of Mongolia, in the 13th century. 

He was the second son of a murdered chief, his family cast out of the tribe to starve, he killed his brother in a dispute over some food. His mom was really mad at him for that. When his wife captured and enslaved by a rival clan, he invaded their camp, killed the captors, rescued his wife and conquered the world from there. 

He formed a cavalry numbering in the hundreds of thousands, using a novel personnel policy. He staffed his army based on merit instead of family connections. He invited conquered soldiers to join him instead of killing them. He rewarded his cavalry with inconceivable wealth. He also threatened every city he came to, and slaughtered multitudes. Sometimes he released a handful of captives knowing they would alert the next city that death and destruction were the only alternative to capitulation. He conquered by force and led by threats and promises. 

The Mongols raided settled people. The cities and their farmers grew their food and tended animals. They were tied to the land, as were their armies. They ate several times a day, as people do. The Mongols could move at terrific and terrifying speeds because they could live without stopping, without foraging, without a supply chain, and for a while, without supplies. They could ride for days because they were tough enough and motivated enough to do it; and if the bag of food they carried ran out they could cut a vein in the neck of their horse and sip his blood as they rode. 

They deepened their understanding of the ways of war from their enemies’ tactics: how to send spies and gather intelligence, to construct relay stations to speed communication, to split large enemy forces into small groups they could destroy. They used stealth and speed to appear out of nowhere; they became adept at terror; they used new engineering to build siege engines and knock down city walls. They diverted rivers to deprive besieged cities of water. They engulfed tribes, cities, nations and empires, from central Europe to the Pacific Coast of China. 

Genghis cleared the ground with conquest. But to unify, administer and grow his empire he created a large bureaucracy, a new written language, a written code of law; he prosecuted corruption and bribery, and offered opportunity for the able. He left his 130,000-man army to his sons when he died.

Venetian merchant Marco Polo met Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan at the Mongol’s summer court in Xanadu. Marco Polo, his uncle and his dad, sailed and walked from Venice across Turkey, Central Asia and China to the Pacific Ocean, and back – Marco made the trip twice – almost all the way on Mongol-controlled land. They followed roads and caravan routes known as The Silk Road.

Not satisfied with its conquest of China, Kublai Khan sent a fleet of ships east over the Pacific Ocean, to attack Japan. Three times the Mongol navy was blown back from Japan by storms known as the “kame kaze” – the divine winds – which saved Japan from Mongol conquest.  

Masters of Bu, Kublai’s Mongol Chinese empire, known as the Yuan Dynasty, excelled in Bun as well. They took power, and they held on to it. They operated their Chinese empire in Chinese style. For example, they instituted the Chinese government civil service exam, based on the neo-Confucian Four Books. This exam, and the curriculum on which it was based, was the quintessential Chinese intellectual and civil achievement. It was used for 700 years as the national educational curriculum, as a vehicle to promote unified values and knowledge base, and as an effective mechanism to select the best and the brightest of Chinese society for government service. It was initiated by Kublai Khan. 

Kublai personally chose the Zen abbots of the Shaolin Monastery. His support of Shaolin influenced the east Asian martial arts in many ways, as revealed by the images of the protector deities on the cover of the English editions of the Karate Do Kyohan, representations of the central figures of worship at Shaolin.

Havoc and death followed as the Mongol army moved. Order and prosperity appeared from the smoking ruins. Bu and Bun.

But within the span of one human life, three generations of leaders, the Mongol empire was dissolving. Kublai ended his life incapacitated by self-indulgence. His empire did too. The Yuan Dynasty eventually collapsed from a combination of disease, bankruptcy from military overreach, and mass emigration.  

Kublai was brilliant in war and peace. But he seemed to think he could remain at the apex of the world indefinitely. 

George Washington

Like Alexander, Genghis, Kublai and Ashoka, George Washington led a fight against a great imperial power. In his case it was not a contest for world domination. Washington led a small-scale colonial rebellion against the British Empire, a global superpower of the 18th century. 

The American rebels lost battle after battle. They froze. They starved. They persisted. 

George Washington’s guerilla forces had no doubt that their alternatives were victory or death. If frostbite and hunger were the price, then okay, you do what you have to do. One famous story has them walking all day and then all through the freezing night, circling to the undefended rear of the British camp, sniping from the cover of the woods, appearing and disappearing, and soon routing the large, well-equipped, well-trained, well-paid regular British army. 

They were outnumbered, determined and brave. The Americans risked everything, held back nothing, and prevailed. 

General Tariq Ibn Ziyad commanded “Burn the ships” when his 7,000-man invasion force landed on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. He was facing an opposing army of 100,000. What better way to encourage his men than the choice of victory or death?

Conquistador Hernan Cortes, for the same reason, ordered his ships scuttled when his small force landed on the coast of Mexico. Aeneas did it too, thousands of years before, after crossing the Aegean Sea to assault the land that would be Rome. 

“Break the kettles and sink the ships!” was the order of the Qin army General at the famous battle of Julu, in the 2ndcentury BC.  Advantageous as it is, giving 100% does not guarantee victory. He lost the war, the nation, and 200,000 men.

Competent Generals will not know the outcome of a battle in advance, but they will know when they have crossed the Rubicon. For the American revolutionaries the moment came with the Declaration of Independence of 1776, which spelled out the war aims and the rationale for rebellion.

As fighters we will all recognize this moment: In a street confrontation or a home invasion, when there is no way out, no way to avoid, escape, de-escalate, or negotiate. We know when the time has come to take action, to risk everything. 

George Washington reached that point. From Brooklyn to Valley Forge to Trenton to Saratoga, conditions changed. The rebels learned the lessons of asymmetrical fighting: how a small determined force can hit the enemy and vanish, raid and disappear like water on sand, earn victory by a thousand cuts. 

The British military and political leadership in 18th century North America were, like the dinosaurs, perfectly adapted to conditions that no longer existed. 

What followed the unexpected American victory in the North American war was a decade long effort to formulate a peace that might endure. The solution was the US Constitution. The Constitution set out the rules of order, and the relations of power, well enough to stabilize the nation, harmonize divergent interests, and function effectively for more than a hundred and fifty years.  

The same people that fought the war turned their hearts and minds to statecraft after the war was won; shifting focus from Bu to Bun.

Bun has no Resting Place

After the American Constitutional Convention concluded in 1787 a lady stopped Benjamin Franklin, one of the delegates, as he was leaving. She asked about the new American Constitution: Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin answered “A republic. If you can keep it.” 

As thinker and critic Myron Magnet observed: No constitution, however wisely designed, (Franklin) warned… can protect a people against tyranny or conquest if it weakens itself by unchecked “corruption of morals, profligacy of manners, and listlessness for the preservation of the natural and unalienable rights of mankind.” 

That is the critical “Bun” component of Bun Bu Ryo Do. It is not fixed, soft, or literary. If you follow Napoleon – blazing through Austerlitz, freezing at Moscow – you see the consequences of its omission.  Peace requires strength and virtue. So does war.

Bun Bu Ryo Do shodo by Teneya Ryuhei Sensei

Bun Bu as a Trinity

Bun Bu Ryo Do is sometimes regarded as a binary system – with the arts of war and of civil life complementing each other in dynamic tension. In the 19th century Prussian General Karl von Clausewitz’ cast war as “politics by other means.” This can be seen in the obverse as well: civil administration and social organization may be conducted as “war by other means,” if advantage and fear are the guiding principles of civil life. This is a constricted view of both war and peace. 

Bun Bu Ryo Do is not a binary system. It is a trinity: the arts of war, the arts of peace and the path we travel as we use them. All the parts are changing all the time. 

That is why we martial artists continue to train for a lifetime. That is also how we train.

The Bun Bu Trinity: Tactics, Ethics, Metaphysics

Tactics includes more than ‘fighting.” Techniques, training, operations, strategy, logistics, mission, morale, communication, planning, technology, transport, intelligence, and leadership are all essential components of any tactical engagement – personal, corporate, or national. 

Our choice of tactics, and our ability to employ them effectively, in the dojo, in single combat and otherwise, depends on an accurate knowledge of how things work. That consists of more than knowledge of manpower, firepower, maneuver, terrain and the other observable characteristics of the battlespace. Understanding “how things work” requires an accurate understanding of metaphysical principles. 


For example, if we understand that cause and effect are continually in operation – that everything we see has causes and that everything we do has effects – and if we understand that everything and everyone is continually changing – then we can examine which causes produce which effects and choose to act in ways which will fulfill our goals. That is a metaphysical insight – the validity of cause & effect and of impermanence – which we can use, in action. 

If we choose an erroneous metaphysic – like the view that “everything is a crapshoot,” a matter of chance, or “life sucks and then you die,” or “it’s all about feeling good,” or “whoever dies with the most stuff wins” – then our choices will reflect our view, and sooner or later life will come crashing down, like the total loss of a hopeless gambler. 

Dojo Application

If we understand change and causality then we can look at a kata and see deeply: which attack would need which defense; what new targets might be exposed as a result, what counters might then be applied, how those counters themselves might be foiled, and how we might make the most of the new permutation, and so on, until the threat is resolved. We can take our time and do the analysis in the dojo. Then a skilled martial artist can put these insights into action, in kumite or in combat. It will happen faster than cognition. But it will happen.


The application of metaphysical insight – the principles of cause & effect, and patterns of continual change, applies in kata, kumite, battle, business, sports, research or life. 

This deep way of doing bunkai kata analysis may be overlooked, replaced with a simplistic, static approach that fails to recognize the ongoing “rock, paper, scissors” dynamic which allows not just one block-punch interpretation for each move in the kata, but instead will reveal endless permutations.

This endlessly changing “rock, paper, scissors” dynamic has been described in terms of “five-phase” wu-hsing theory, the eight ba gua, and by other symbol systems, esoteric and otherwise – but the premise that transformation is continuous, patterned and caused – is consistent throughout all these systems. And so is the idea that if you can understand how the transformations work then you can employ them to your advantage.


Accurate metaphysical understanding – insight into the way things exist – is only accessible to us if our minds are clear and stable; and our minds will only be clear and stable if we have good relationships with others. People who lie, steal, cheat, rape and kill to get what they want, do not get to think clearly. If you have spent even a little time with murderers and thieves you know this. 

Having meaningful, good relationships with people is a matter of mutual responsibility as well as of affection and respect.  Close relationships require courage – willing vulnerability and tenderness as well as the strength to defend ourselves and others, when the time comes to do that. 

Good relationships require us to treat people kindly, fairly and honestly, considering their well-being not just our own.  Without disciplined, ethical behavior the mind becomes overwrought – stressed, scheming, paranoid, occupied by fear and desire. 

Strong dojos grow where people challenge each other and collaborate. Then skills improve. People get strong, proud and honest. Dojos dissolve when people deceive and exploit each other, whether for gain or status. 

No matter how strong you are, or who you dominate, or how much you take, it will all slip away, if force is all you have to work with. Every successful leader knows that you rely on your people to reach your objectives. You can rely on them if you respect them, share with them, see to their well-being. If you take them for granted or cut them out, they will turn against you. As they should. That is so in leadership and in life.

Tyrants and gangsters fighting their way up to the top of the heap by any means necessary all someday fall, in a collapse beyond any limit they ever imagined.

The Unified Field of Action 

As martial artists our ethics, tactics and metaphysics are not separate realms. They are the three-dimensional universe in which we act. The Bun, Bu and Do. The deeper we penetrate into one of these dimensions, the deeper the implications for mastering the others. Using them we can build a life that is good and strong. We can leave a legacy that will endure. 

The claim of the profundity of martial arts is valid. It is what our greatest teachers have taught. 

Bun Bu Ryo Do is a Japanese expression of a universal idea. It is accessible to us through our traditions, in the words of our founders and our teachers, and in their example. We can make good use of it in our training and in our lives. 

The field of action I mention in the title is a field of desire: Desire in the broad sense of what people want, from moment to moment, over the course of their lives and of history. Desire is the organizing principle of our realm. It is what makes us move, and its change is what we measure as the contour of our lives.

It is in light of this unified field theory of action which we can be “…as swift as wind, as gentle as the forest, as fierce as fire, as firm as a mountain…” 


Post Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey M. Brooks, author of The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts

Jeff Brooks is a 40-year practitioner of karate; for 20 years was a writer for high profile public figures in business, government, media and the arts; after that he turned to crime, working as a police detective, federal investigator, and law enforcement instructor in multiple disciplines. He is the author of several books and hundreds of published articles on martial arts. 


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