Sunday, February 10, 2013

Budo Etiquette and Courtesy

I was reading a piece about Emily Post, the great master of etiquette, and the profound effect her book, Etiquette: In Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, has had over the decades since it was first published in 1922. Generations of people have used it’s advice and principles to become more adept at negotiating society’s and life’s difficult situations.  Etiquette is fundamental to everything we do, even, or perhaps especially, how we handle conflict.  Many people imagine etiquette to be ritualized and stuffy, but etiquette done well can express everything from great honor and respect to cutting disgust, all while being impeccably proper.


礼に始まり礼に終わる
In budo we often hear this phrase 礼に始まり礼に終わる (Rei ni hajimari, rei ni owaru).  “Begin with rei, and end with rei”.   Rei often gets translated as “bow”,  perhaps because budo practice literally does begin and end with bowing.  In this case though, “bow” is not the best translation.  The Kenkyusha Online Dictionary gives the following meaning, “etiquette; decorum; propriety; politeness; courtesy; civility”.  A better translation would be to use the first word there, giving us “Begin with etiquette and end with etiquette.”  This is still pretty stiff though.  I think a more useful, clear, and faithful translation is “Begin with courtesy and end with courtesy.”  Courtesy can encompass good etiquette, but as I noted before, you can express all sorts of negative feelings while still having proper etiquette.  Courtesy though implies an entirely positive activity, and I believe that is what is intended with this aphorism.


Robert Heinlein noted that “An armed society is a polite society” and this is certainly true of medieval and early modern Japan.  There were layers and layers of etiquette classical Japan, and even the language has layers of formal etiquette.  What you wore, and how you talked to people were all covered by detailed rules of etiquette.  There were different ways of conjugating verbs depending on your relative social rank to the person you are talking with, or even the person you are talking about!  In a society awash in weapons (Japan up to the 1600s), or where a significant portion of the population was pretty much required to be armed (Japan from about 1600 to 1868), being overly polite wouldn’t have just been about social rules, it would have been about not upsetting someone who could hurt you.


A lot of this formal etiquette continues to hold sway in modern Japan.  The number and variety of formal verb conjugations to express relative social rank and respect have dwindled so now there are only 4 or 5 forms that are used with great regularity, but many of the social rules are still there.  In Japan, etiquette is not a rigid system for keeping people in their place (there are other social mechanisms for that).  Etiquette is communication.   How you bow to someone communicates a host of information to the recipient of your bow and to everyone who sees it.   The depth of your bow and how long you hold it express your respect for the person you are bowing to, and their bow to you expresses the same thing.  The bows also express your relative social positions.  This makes reading the meaning and intent of a bow in Japan both important and complex, and the act of bowing becomes both important and subtle.


A properly done bow expresses respect and humility.  A bow that is too shallow or quick can express arrogance or thoughtlessness.  A bow that is too deep and slow can look sarcastic and insolent.  All this comes from a simple bow.  I have been honored by elite teachers when they have given me the briefest of nods that sincerely recognized me, and insulted by people who gave me a deep bow that implied I had no idea what a real bow meant and really didn’t deserve one.

 
These expressions of respect are the first level of communication in the etiquette we use in the dojo.  “An armed society is a polite society” is a wonderful description of a dojo. In a martial arts dojo everyone is armed, whether the weapons are visible or not.   You almost never see a weapon in a judo dojo, but everyone there is armed with martial knowledge and skills.  In dojo for other martial arts, there are likely to be lots of weapons around to go with the knowledge and skill.  You really don’t want to antagonize anyone in such a situation, even inadvertently.  There are always those who have acquired dangerous weapons without acquiring the emotional control and wisdom to know when not to use them.  Etiquette gives us a tool for communicating respect and politeness.


All that bowing in the dojo communicates a lot more than just respect and politeness though.  In the dojo the etiquette also lets us know when it is ok to use our weapons and when not use them.  It tells those around us what we are going to do and when we are done with it.  We bow at the start of class to express respect for our teachers and our fellow students and for the art we are studying.  We bow when we begin practicing with someone, and we bow when we are finished training with that person.  We bow to seniors and teachers when we want their attention and when we are done speaking with them.  We bow at the end of class to show respect and thanks again to our teachers, our fellow students and the art we are studying.


That’s a lot of bowing.  It can become very stiff and formal, I will admit.  It is possible to take all this etiquette and make it as stiff and rigid as military unit on formal parade.  There really isn’t any need to though.  The bowing is there for many reasons, all of them good.  It’s really helpful to be able to know by just looking that someone is about to start an intense bit of training with a partner, and to be able to tell when they are finished.  This is true whether you are teacher waiting to give them some correction, or a junior who just wants to get past them to the bathroom at the other side of the dojo.  In Japan, bowing is usually only stiff and formal at stiff, formal events.  To quote a lovely little piece on bowing, “Firstly, bowing should be natural.”  


This goes for all etiquette, not just bowing.  It should be natural.  In the dojo, the bows to our partner when we start practicing together are not rigid salutes.  They are invitations to train and study together, to share something that you all enjoy.  If you are rigid and formal when you bow, what does this say to your partner about what you are about to do?  礼に始まり礼に終わり。 What if we stop calling it etiquette, and start calling it courtesy?  Think of your bows when you start practice with someone as a way of expressing courtesy to your partners and a way of welcoming them into your practice and saying “Let’s share this wonderful training.”  


We are being courteous when we use good etiquette.   People who are really good at it move so naturally and easily in whatever they are doing that they are make those around them comfortable.  A big part of being courteous is being sincere.  If you are doing something mechanically, just because “that’s what you’re supposed to do” that feeling will be clearly communicated to everyone who sees you.  Doing it because it is a good thing to do, and because you are expressing your respect and care for those around comes through to the people who see you as well.   If your etiquette makes people feel stiff and formal, maybe you should give some thought to why you are doing it that way.


I travel a lot, so I’ve been in a lot of different dojo for different arts and styles in a variety of countries.  Etiquette really is courtesy.  By acting with courtesy and sincerity, even if the details of your form are not exactly what people expect, they will still understand your intention.  This got me through many events when I first moved to Japan.  I was a typical Westerner, bowing far too deeply all the time and not really understanding what I was doing.  I had learned a little about bowing at the judo dojo I trained at in America, but most of our bows were very deep and very formal because none of us had any experience in Japan.  The dojo was the only place we used it.  This wasn’t bad, it just meant that there was a lot more that I could have been communicating than I had been.


I came to Japan expecting everyone to be very formal and always bow deeply like I saw in movies and in the dojo.  I thought the etiquette would be very stiff and formal and difficult and cold and all about how proper and correct you could be.  I was wrong on every point.  The social courtesies are fluid and relaxed and simple and warm and about making sure you fit into the social situation properly.    The bows, once I learned to read them, told me when I was welcome, when it was a bad time to talk with someone, when someone was unhappy about something and if that something was directly related to me or not, and they gave me a sense of where I belonged in the social environment.


In the dojo we can learn a lot of things, and while I didn’t learn all about bowing in Japan while I was in the judo dojo in Kalamazoo, I did learn enough about basic etiquette and courtesies that I was able to make a generally good impression on the people I dealt with.  I knew the proper way of sitting in seiza and getting up and down, so that at formal events I didn’t feel out place, even if I was often clueless about much of what was going on around me because my Japanese was still quite weak.  I knew enough to be sincere and to show my appreciation with a proper bow.  At first, like most Westerners, I bowed too deeply.  This was actually bad etiquette, because the deep bow showed excessive respect and formality and made my Japanese hosts feel unusually formal.  The excessively formal bows also expressed a degree of social distance between my hosts and myself that didn’t exist.  Instead of the Japanese being overly formal and stiff, here I was the one being rigid and coldly formal.  The irony makes me laugh even now.   More quickly than I expected, friends and experience taught me how to interact with people using the appropriate courtesies.  Deep bows are mainly in the dojo, and for outside the dojo I learned to adjust the depth and length of my bow to the situation so my friends and colleagues would feel at ease with me.


The etiquette, I discovered, is a courtesy for everyone.   It welcomes people and lets them know that they belong, that they are in the right place.  Dojo courtesy is just the same.  My actions in the dojo should speak eloquently of my respect for my teachers, my fellow students, and the art we are studying.  My actions should speak just as eloquently of the warmth of my love for my teachers, my fellow students and the art we are studying.  By being appropriately courteous, I can also express humor, regret, joy, appreciation, anger and all of the other emotions that might come up.


In the dojo, where we are learning a Way, is a wonderful place to learn courtesy.   I’ve been in overly formal, rigid dojo, but these have all been outside Japan.  In Japan the etiquette is much more an art of courtesy.  We all bow deeply to Sensei, and we bow to each other.  There are a million little courtesies that take place in the dojo that could be stiff formalities, but in a healthy dojo are joyous ways of saying to each other “We appreciate you and want you here.”  When I come in the bows I receive are welcoming, making me feel at home.  When we bow to Sensei at the start of class it is with a genuine feeling respect and affection.  Not only are we learning something from him, but we really like him as a human being, and our etiquette expresses this.


There is a lot of etiquette in budo, numerous courtesies that are there for politeness and safety in arts that are frankly, dangerous if not practiced in a careful environment. The etiquette of a dojo will tell you a great deal about the rest of the training. In the koryu dojo I am familiar with, the etiquette is quite veried. The opening bows are deep and respectful. Bows to training colleagues can be inviting and welcoming. But some of the bows are quite different. In many koryu arts, there are bows between partners at the start of certain parts of training that give you the chance to practice the less positive aspects of etiquette as well. In styles like Shinto Muso Ryu and Tendo Ryu, the bow can also express deep suspicion and distrust. The bow at about 0:25 here shows a very brief bow that expresses distrust and dislike and very intense connection, which is quite appropriate given the seriousness of the exchange between the two well armed people that follows. All of this is part of etiquette.


The etiquette, the formal courtesies of Japan are the courtesies of budo.  The etiquette can’t be separated from budo without destroying both. Etiquette and courtesy get their meaning from the context in which they are used. Good budo training teaches a lot about how to behave and treat people with honor and respect. The etiquette and the courtesies learned are just as much lessons of budo as the techniques and skills of combat. They are very real parts of the Way you study.
I’ve seen dojo with stiff, militaristic atmospheres, but always outside of Japan, and always in modern martial arts.  This stiff formality is not a characteristic of the budo in Japan that I am familiar with. Budo teaches a way of living. That way must be flexible enough to adapt to any situation. If the etiquette is stiff and rigid, it dead and cannot be used for anything. If the etiquette if relaxed and fluid, it can be adapted to any situation.


礼に始まり礼に終わり. Begin and end your practice with etiquette. Begin and end your practice with courtesy. Make not just your bows, but all of your greetings sincere. Show your respect for everyone in the dojo. Let your etiquette express your appreciation for the kindness and teaching that you are receiving from your teachers and fellow students. Let your actions speak of your joy at being able to train together. Not just the scripted courtesies of bowing in and out of the dojo and to your teachers and partners. Let your courtesies include the unscripted actions as well. Courtesy and etiquette aren't just the scripted activities. Real courtesy and etiquette about about those unscripted parts of life where we decide how to treat one and other. The scripted parts of practice in the dojo are just that, practice. They are lessons in how to treat people all the time. The various courtesies of bowing, serving drinks to seniors, cleaning the dojo, and a hundred other little things, are lessons in being courteous throughout life.

Rei ni hajimari, rei ni owari. Courtesy is how we begin, and how we end.

1 comment:

Ronin scholar said...

I very much appreciate this post, especially the part about how visitors to dojo in Japan can inadvertently make a wrong impression by being too stiff or bowing too deeply (and for too long). To someone with experience, it looks obsequious or plain rude. A good rule of thumb is not to bow so deeply at okeiko that you can't see what other people are doing around you. Bow when they do, as deeply as they do, and rise when then do, and you will be okay!