To learn something positive we need instruction, observation, inference and experience7 min read

Many years at Judo—first as a student and then as an honorary teacher in London—have given me some valuable lessons for life. I discovered that one can learn in four main ways—instruction, observation, inference and personal experience. My conclusion is that to know something thoroughly one must learn it in all these four ways. This applies to life in general, but we can see it in a model from Budo. Budo practice in a dojo training hall is like doing an experiment in a laboratory. If the correct result is clearly confirmed, one can recognize the same principle everywhere outside the laboratory, though not in such a clear form.

For instance, the principle of gravity is demonstrated in a laboratory, inside a vacuum. In the vacuum, a thread falls at the same rate as a stone. This does not happen in the world outside because of air resistance. But the same pull of gravity is still there. Once we have seen it in the laboratory, we can recognize it everywhere. The autumn leaves, blown high by the wind, seem to contradict gravity, but still we know that gravity is working on them. In the same way, in our Budo training in the practice hall, we can discover principles for our life outside. The dojo is a sort of laboratory: one of the things we can discover is how to learn.

To learn something positive we need these four methods— instruction, observation, inference and experience. They are all necessary, but not for a negative: ‘Don’t do that!’

Instruction: Learning through instruction consists mainly of hearing and reading. Some people say, ‘Instruction is wrong; let students find out everything for themselves by experiment’. That idea is nonsense. How can we say to a student? ‘Here are some copper, zinc, acid and wire. Now discover electric current! Geniuses like A. Volta, M. Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell took only about 200 years. Perhaps you can do it in an afternoon’. Clearly it would be impossible; he must have some instruction.

For a negative—‘Don’t do that!’—the instruction alone should be enough. Judo beginners are often told: ‘Do not try to prevent yourself from being thrown by putting your arm out on to the tatami. It is dangerous. You may dislocate your elbow’. In life a similar instruction would be: ‘Do not drive a car when you are drunk’. These instructions may be followed, or not followed, depending on the intelligence of the pupil and also on how much he respects the instructor.

For many people, such warnings alone are not enough. ‘A hundred hearings are not like one seeing’. The instruction may have to be confirmed by other means of knowledge.

Observation: This is seeing what happens to others. If we see an elbow damaged in the dojo, or a drunken driver go into a tree, the instruction is confirmed.

Inference: We look at some tough but not too intelligent Judo men and see how many of them cannot straighten one of their elbows. Or we can read about the many police-court convictions for drunken driving. We infer that the instruction was not right.

Personal experience: If in spite of the instruction not to do so, observations of accidents to others and inference from the long-term effects, we still do these things, then we get personal experience. Our own elbows are dislocated, or we drive into trees.

It is sometimes said that ‘we must learn by personal experience alone’. But this cannot always be possible. If we get drunk, drive the car and crash into a tree, it is a personal experience. But often we shall learn nothing from it, because we shall be dead.

Therefore, with negative things, personal experience is not necessary. It is usually undesirable. The most intelligent learn—from instruction alone—not to make mistakes. The less intelligent need observation and inference before they are convinced. The stupidly obstinate have to undergo a disaster before they understand, but quite often it is then too late.

My generation is very opposed to taking drugs, even though we drink tea and coffee which are mild drugs. Sometimes young people say to me: ‘It is unreasonable to condemn drugs, if you have never taken them yourself,

because you do not know about them from personal experience. You say they have bad effects, but how do you know what the effects are? You have never taken them yourself, so you do not know what the experience is like’.

Elderly people often do not know how to answer this argument and become silent. But I reply, ‘I do not have to jump into a cesspit to know what it would be like.’ Then usually the young people become silent, or else hurriedly change the subject.

So with negative things it is best to be able to accept instruction, without waiting for observation, inference and personal experience. We can learn this fact in the dojo.

But with positive things it is the reverse. Instruction is merely a starting point. It must be deepened by observation, inference and finally personal experience. There is always a danger that instructions will be too detailed so that the pupil follows them mechanically. Such a pupil may become technically expert, but he is simply like a machine. He can carry out his programme, but he cannot meet anything unexpected. The Budo schools knew about this danger.

The teachers would give the main points but not all the details. The students had to work out the details themselves. One of the ‘secret scrolls’ of the Shinno shintoryu13 school says:

‘My own teacher used to explain a technique to us only roughly and then tell me: “You have the root. Now you have to train relentlessly, crushing the bone and flesh, for a long time, never forgetting that the basis of our training is mental. Jujutsu is shinjutsu, or the art of the heart’.

Again and again these old traditions emphasize this: a Way or do is not simply a collection of tricks or a sequence of correct moves. There must be something living in it, which comes from a much deeper level than thinking: ‘Now I will do this. Now it is time to do that’.

This applies in many fields, including speaking a foreign language. Japanese students tend to learn correct grammar and many sentences by heart. But often they have no fluency. They have to prepare each sentence inwardly before they speak it.

I have sometimes taught the Japanese language to British people, and I have been told that my methods are rather unusual. But often the students become interested. Take the word shitsurei, for example. I explain that this means roughly ‘Excuse me’, and tell the student, ‘You say this when there is some little accident, whether it is your fault or not*.

The student nods yes, and I make him say the word two or three times. Then I tell him to stand up and walk past me, brushing against me. He does so, silently.

Then I say: ‘You should have said “Shitsurei” automatically’. I make him do it several times more, saying ‘Shitsurei!’ or ‘Ah, shitsurei!’ each time, till it comes naturally.

When he comes for the next lesson, I do not greet him at the door. I have switched off the hall light so that the little hall is dim. I leave the door half shut, and just inside I put a little table, so that when the door is opened it will be knocked over. As I hear him come up, I call out, ‘Come in!’ He pushes the door, knocks over the table and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’ or ‘What’s this?’ As he stands puzzled, I say: ‘You should say “Shitsurei”. Now go out again’. I put the table back and he comes in and knocks it over again, but this time saying ‘Shitsurei’.

We repeat the whole process two or three times. Students have told me that, after this experience, whenever they spilt or dropped something, ‘Shitsurei’ came out of their mouths without their thinking about it. Sometimes their British friends were bewildered.

Of course, these examples are not directly from Budo. But Budo can help us to overcome embarrassment. I have always thought it strange that a young Judo student will keep trying, even though he is thrown all over the dojo. He is not embarrassed, and no one laughs at him. They admire him.

But in speaking a foreign language, the Japanese feel embarrassed when they make a mistake, and other Japanese laugh at them. We should think of speaking a foreign language as randori in a dojo. The Budo spirit does not give us technique, but it gives us calm courage. With it, we can soon master technique.

© Trevor Leggett