Oral traditions bind people; from mythologies that traversed many generations of civilization to shape the world’s beliefs, through the evolution of modern languages that mold the psyche as they tune the tongue, words are the manifestation of collective meaning and the vehicle for ideas to spread.
In the Bujinkan, kuden, or oral transmission, gives a literal voice to the language of the body. Passed from teacher to student, kuden is a powerful act that confers knowledge and facilitates comprehension. Given the prominent role of physical conditioning and the value of embodied learning when we train, the role of kuden may be easy to overlook in your development as a budoka. However, it is a vital component of training that helps to preserve the lineage of budo, facilitate the culture of a dojo and enable the personal growth of all members.
Kuden offers a link to the history of budo and the conceptual principles that underlie its foundation. It requires mental discipline for students to learn proper terminology and to reference it fluently in practice. It also stimulates philosophical reflection, providing opportunities to study the significance of unfamiliar spoken language, to connect with the reasoning behind its naming conventions and to appreciate the cultural values and nuances of the time that spawned them. To stir discussion over the latent meaning of well-known maxims and idioms is to carry the echoes of the past into the present in
the hope that they will continue to be transmitted into the future. To ensure this, teachers and students must take an active role in the transmission.
Active kuden builds community within a dojo through a shared frame of reference. A teacher’s mind – their way of interpreting the world, their self-perception, their progress along the budo path and the gaps in their knowledge – is transmitted in their words to all members of the dojo, providing a common foundation on which they can build their own understanding. Personal dynamics between teachers and each of their students are likewise strengthened through language. Carefully chosen words delivered to
different students will shape their perception not only of techniques, but also of their abilities. A teacher must know their students well and choose their words wisely to make a concept resonate with them so that they may progress.
Words alone are insufficient means of transmission, yet there is a valuable opportunity in this seeming impediment. Spoken instruction invites students to acknowledge the limitations of their mentors and passes the torch of understanding to their own eager minds, granting permission to add their influence on the transmission. In this manner, students become part of the lineage they study; just as language evolves over time, so the legacy of budo evolves with the ability of teachers and students to communicate it. This underscores the responsibility both roles have to each other and to future
generations; to speak with precision, truth and respect for the art we all strive to preserve.
Like the specialized skills that became the signature of historical ninja clans, the words we uphold shape our knowledge, our practice and our art at a local level. They impart the way our instructors think, and they mold our minds in a like manner. They provide an opportunity to advance understanding with our own interpretations and thus to leave our imprint on the history of the art. Oral tradition is only one type of transmission, yet it is woven into all that we do inside the dojo. As we begin and end each class with the ritual declaration of shiken haramitsu daikoumyo, acknowledging with one voice the
opportunity for enlightenment in each moment, we affirm our commitment and contribution to kuden.