Showing posts with label Budo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Budo. Show all posts

Monday, May 8, 2017

Budo Training and Stress

A friend asked me to write about budo as a stressor vs budo as stress relief, and how this interacts with the concept of "If your practice is comfortable you are not growing as a budoka"

At the most basic level, budo works as a stress reliever in the same way that any physical activity does. The activity burns off excess cortisol and adrenaline. What makes budo different is that budo training is, as you suggest above, also a type of stressor.  Competent budo training takes the student (and we’re all students of budo, no matter how long we’ve been studying) out to a place where there is physical and mental stress as a regular part of training.

The practice of martial techniques is pointless if the mind is not developed to be able to handle the stress of conflict. Therefore, competent budo training prepares the body by practicing techniques and strategies, and prepares the mind by placing gradually increasing pressure on the student’s psyche while teaching techniques for managing and mitigating that stress. Having someone trying to hit you with a big stick is stressful even in a training situation. To be effective, budo practice must train students for the stress that being in actual conflict will elicit.

Budo practice doesn’t start students out with full speed and force attacks. It starts them out with an attack that is within their capacity to evade and counter. The attacks are real though, in the sense that when I attack one of my students, she knows that my weapon will shortly occupy the precise space that her head is occupying now. The attack is not as fast or as powerful as I could make it. It is as fast and as powerful as it needs to be to require the student’s best action. The goal is not to hurt or injure the student. The goal is to train the student to deal with the possibility of harm and handle it calmly. As the student masters various parts of the training, the speed and power of the attack must be increased to maintain the challenge for the student and to ensure that the student continues to grow. What had been stressful as a beginning student will cease to be stressful to a more advanced one.

In other words, the student will have learned to handle a certain kind and degree of stress. The budo teacher’s job is to increase the stress and at the same time teach the student techniques for dealing with that stress. I find that good breathing technique is the most fundamental of stress management tools. Early on, students will begin to take quick, shallow breaths that don’t sustain them.  That shallow breathing, in turn, will increase their stress level. The experienced student of budo has learned to breathe efficiently, from her diaphragm, in a steady, measured manner.  Good breathing technique helps the student to remain calm and in control, even as the speed, force and intent of her partner’s attack increases.

The senior student remains calm even under attacks that would overwhelm a beginning student. The repeated experience of gradually intensifying attacks combined with learning to master one’s breathing and reactions through the exercises of a particular budo system increases the level of stress the student can successfully manage. It is not that having someone attack them is no longer stressful, but that they have been trained to raise their stress reaction levels. An attack by a senior teacher that would have been overwhelmingly stressful before, one that  would make a student start hyperventilating while waiting for the attacker to approach, becomes something they await with calm, measured breathing and a quiet, mirror-like mind.

As budo practice continues,  the student finds that she can summon this calm breathing and peaceful mind not just in the dojo, but anywhere she feels stress or conflict. Eventually the student reaches a level where even when her teacher presents a new situation that she is unfamiliar with, her body and mind remain calm and peaceful.  She then becomes confident that she can handle whatever is coming.

This is one aspect of budo training that makes senior exponents appear to be super-human to beginners and non-practitioners. They are in command of themselves, controlled and calm, even when under intense stress. The more effectively a student internalizes the lessons about breathing and mental calmness, the more the lessons will show up outside the dojo.

Being able to remain calm and and unstressed is useful in all sorts of places and situations that don’t involve people trying to hit you with big sticks, tossing you across the room or choking you into submission. It’s surprising how useful this skill is in business settings where negotiations are going on and people are trying to ratchet up the pressure. There are all sorts of adversaries who don’t attack with big sticks, but do attack in other ways, with verbal attacks, implied threats and physical intimidation by imposing on personal space. These can all bring out stress responses.

Budo training can be applied in all of them. Just remembering to breathe calmly when the person across the room starts raising their voice gives the budo student an advantage. Being able to maintain her calm, steady breathing helps to keep a peaceful, undisturbed mind, which does a good job of making many pressure tactics seem almost silly. People who like to intimidate others by their close physical presence are often unnerved themselves when their targets remain calm and confident while their personal space is violated. People who like to yell and pound the table during negotiations tend to grow quiet and uncomfortable when their outbursts are met with calm disregard. It’s like the physical attacker who expects you to stand there and get hit. The student can rewrite the script for the interaction simply by remaining calm when under attack. It doesn’t matter what form the attack takes. With her calm breathing and clear mind, she gets to choose her actions rather than being pushed into the reaction her adversary is looking for.

Budo training works both sides of the stress equation. The physical and mental intensity of good budo practice provides vigorous exercise that relieves accumulated tension. Over time, the lessons learned from the vigorous practice lowers the pressure you feel overall because the training works to raise the bar as to what is stressful, and to help maintain mental stability and calm even when things get hot.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Are You Practicing Budo in a Vacuum?

Osaka Castle Main Tower. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.


I love visiting Japan. It’s a fantastic opportunity to train in dojo where there are several senior students, each with more experience than most teachers in the USA. The teachers who lead these dojo are incredible.  My teacher, Matsuda Shigeharu Shihan is based in Osaka. He doesn’t run his own dojo, but rotates around a group of dojo run by his senior students, people like Kazuo Iseki and Hotani Masayuki. Outside Japan, Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei would each be highly recognized, but inside Japan they run dojo and look to Matsuda Shihan for leadership. I also get to train sometimes with Matsuda Shihan’s colleague Morimoto Kunifumi Shihan.  To get to train with these people, who have 40, 50 or 60 years of experience truly is an honor and a privilege.  

However, this post isn’t about my teachers, or even training in Japan. It’s about the frame and background that surrounds them. I’ve seen people try to practice budo without putting any effort into understanding the history and cultural background of the art they are studying. To me, they are studying budo in a vacuum. It can be argued that fighting can be learned without studying the cultural milieu within which it takes place, but I don’t think the arguments are very convincing.  Without understanding the culture and history of your opponent, you will not be able to understand her goals, which leads to misjudging what tactics and strategies are most appropriate.

Budo wasn’t created in a vacuum by a bunch of guys with vivid imaginations. Budo comes from a concrete world of sweat and blood. The world of the founders of the many ryuha  was filled with obstacles that could block your weapon if you didn’t pay attention to your surroundings.  Even your own weapons and clothing could interfere with your ability to react.

The many different schools of Japanese budo are impossible to truly understand and appreciate without  understanding the history and culture which nurtured and contributed to the individual schools. There are dozens of surviving schools of Japanese budo; some with histories from the 1400s like Kashima Shinryu and Katori Shinto, as well as other,  more recently developed schools, such as Kodokan Judo and Ueshiba Ryu Aikido. Each of these schools shares a great deal of Japanese culture, but they also each have a unique history that informs the particular values of the school.  The circumstances that surrounded the founding of a school in the tumultuous era of the 15th century were different in almost every way from those that led to Kano Jigoro founding Kodokan Judo in the 1880s or Ueshiba Morihei establishing his Aikido in the 1940s.

When I go to Japan, it’s an opportunity to immerse myself in the unbelieveable depth of experience in the dojo, but also to soak myself in the culture and history that has shaped the arts I study. When I went to Japan in November, I had a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the culture and history of Japan that has influenced the budo I study and practice.



I arrived in Japan on a Saturday evening and spent much of Sunday getting adjusted to the time change and doing some jodo training. On Monday morning I got up and headed over to Osaka Castle Park. I wanted to see the dojo I’d be testing in the following Sunday, and see Osaka Castle itself.  Somehow, in nearly 30 years of traveling to Japan, seven of them spent living there, I’d never gotten around to seeing Osaka Castle. It’s the site of some of the most horrific and important battles in Japanese history. The castle tower has been built, destroyed and rebuilt several times, but visiting the castle and the surrounding park provides good perspective on the Japan of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Osaka Castle Main Gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016


Osaka Castle Inner Gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016


The castle tower is big.  It was easily the tallest object around for hundreds of years. What is more amazing are the walls and fortifications around the tower.  These are massive, and they easily give a feel for the huge armies that were involved in the wars of the 1500s that raged back and forth across Japan.The idea of carrying a sword and being part of those huge armies changes the view of what combat might have been like.

 
Shudokan Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016
 
As it happens, the Shudokan Dojo, where I was to test, is part of the Osaka Castle Park complex now.  It’s a lovely building from the Showa Period (1926-1989) built just for budo practice.  I wanted to check out the interior where my test would be, but the dojo didn’t open until later in the afternoon when I would be training with Hotani Sensei.  The outside of the building was lovely, and the sign said anyone was welcome to practice for just 300 yen. What can be rare and hard to find in America is open to anyone in Japan with 300 yen and an interest in budo. 
After several days of training, I was starting to get a little sore.  I needed a break.  So before keiko that Tuesday we went to Kiyomizu Temple to do some sightseeing.  Kiyomizu Temple is at the site of an ancient spring with pure water used for sado, tea ceremony.  The temple complex is about 1200 years old, though the current buildings date from the late 1600s. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most picturesque places in Kyoto, so it’s always filled with tourists from all over Japan and the world.

Kiyomizu Temple overlooking Kyoto. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.



Recently, it’s become popular rent traditional clothing to walk Kyoto in. This is a new trend that I like. There were lots and lots of women in kimono, and even a few men in hakama. The city of Kyoto has worked hard to maintain its traditional buildings and architecture, and the tourists in traditional clothing fit right in. It’s not hard to imagine how the temple and city must have looked when everyone dressed that way.

Ladies in kimono at Kiyomizu Temple. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.


After walking through Kiyomizu Temple, my friend Bijan and I and walked around the small shopping streets from the temple to Maruyama Park. The road leading up to Kiyomizu Temple from Maruyama Park is, in this era, really a foot path, even though locals and delivery trucks insist on pushing their way through the crowds. It’s lined with small, traditional snack shops, green tea ice cream vendors, and traditional craft shops of all sorts. I bought some lovely tenugui at a little shop along the way.  When I asked the man at the register how long the shop has been there, he told me that he’s the 6th generation owner. This is not at all unusual in Kyoto, and helps bring alive the idea that the living traditions handed down carefully from generation to generation that we train in aren’t all that rare in Japan. Besides shops, there all sorts of crafts where the living masters trace their lineage back generations and hundreds of years. Kabuki, Noh, potters, painters, sword makers and sword teachers can all trace their lineages back through the centuries. In places like Kyoto, this sense of age permeates the atmosphere and brings a sense of the normalcy of such things to those of us from countries that  are younger than the arts we study.

Wandering from Kiyomizu Temple to Maruyama Park also makes some of the kata I’ve studied over the years much more practical and less philosophical. Many of the homes and store complexes have an actual gate or mon 門. If you have a kata in your system with the word mon  in the name, such as Mon Ire in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu or Muso Shinden Ryu, you can easily see why there are particular kata for fighting around a gate. The top of the gate is low and the space is not very big. You have to be careful just walking through the gate, much less trying to fight there.

Another feature of old Japanese cities are the narrow streets. I know several bugei systems with a kata called Hoso Michi 細道, or Narrow Street. The street from the temple to the park is only about 10 feet (3 meters) wide, and there are many little streets connecting to it that are only 3-6 feet (1-2 meters) wide. After you see just how many narrow streets there are in a traditional Japanese city like Kyoto, the only surprise with having kata called Hoso Michi is that there aren’t a lot more of them. There are little tiny alleyways everywhere.

The path leads past all sorts of little, traditional shops and many small temples in addition to Kiyomizu Temple.  We had a lovely sushi lunch in one.  Sushi as we know it isn’t all that old, only really dating from the mid-19th century, but some of the senbei and dango shops, like the place where I bought the tenugui, have been there for generations. Being able to walk the streets this way, you can feel the atmosphere of centuries past, and now, thanks to all the tourists wearing kimono and hakama, you can get sense of how the people may have looked as well.

Budo, like any living tradition, and any living person, has been shaped by the culture and history through which it has passed.  You can’t study budo in a vacuum. Without understanding where budo comes from, there is no way to really understand what you are doing or how those lessons might apply to the world as it has become. Those funky kata are just arm waving exercises until you can clearly see the world they came from and how they fit. Without that, there isn’t any way to connect what you are studying and practicing with the world you live in. Even the modern budo of judo and kendo are more than 100 years old in their current forms. Aikido isn’t quite 100 yet, but some of its elements are from far older traditions. Shiko, knee walking, goes back to particular styles of court dress from the Edo period. Judo contains kata against weapons of the Edo and early Meiji eras. Kendo, is, well, a sword art.

If you don’t know how the art you study relates to the world it came from, what possibility is there for you to relate it to the world outside the dojo you live in? This is especially true in the koryu bugei, but as in the examples above, it relates to more modern budo as well. In the Shinto Hatakage Ryu that I teach, there is a strange little movement during the noto that doesn’t make a lot of sense as iai is usually practiced. Iai is usually practiced with just a katana in the obi, but that’s not how the samurai who created the art and lived it for generations dressed.  They wore two swords, a katana and what we call today a wakizashi, a short sword worn beside the katana. That strange little motion looks like silly arm waving, and it is. At least, it is until you put a wakizashi in your obi next to the katana. Then the motion makes perfect sense as you maneuver around the wakizashi to get the katana back into the saya without banging the swords or your wrist. There’s a lesson here about being aware of your surroundings and moving in accordance with them that shows up in many places in budo kata, regardless of which ryuha you are studying.

The lessons of budo kata and training aren’t meant to be particular. You’re not learning about how to wield your sword in an alleyway in Japan, or how to fight in and around the gate of a traditional Japanese home. The kata chosen in any ryuha represent specific examples of general problems.  How do you draw your sword in obstructed spaces? How do you move in loose, baggy clothing, or be aware of obstacles in your environment? If you think of each kata and lesson as an isolated instance, there is no way to understand and absorb everything it has to offer. Knowing the history and background of a kata makes it possible to extract general rules from specific lessons. There is no way to make a kata for every possible variation. There isn’t enough time in one life to study every possible scenario. The creators of budo chose lessons that could be extrapolated from individual kata to the whole panoply of life.

Generations ago when the budo ryuha were being created, these general lessons were easier to pick up because the specific practices were drawn from daily life. Now we have to study not just the kata, but the history and settings of the kata before we can extract all the lessons they contain.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Budo and Control



I have this crazy idea that budo is not about controlling the world.  It's not about imposing our will on the world.  It's not about becoming powerful. It's about learning to work with the world as it is. It's about recognizing our inherent weaknesses. It’s about being able to deal with whatever happens calmly, simply and without losing our balance.

Many people seem to think the world can and should be controlled.  One of the lessons of budo is that the only thing we can have any control of is ourselves.  The world is bigger and more complicated than our imaginations can hold all at once. The connections, complexities and consequences of any action or occurrence are more numerous than we can envision.  The danger is fooling ourselves into believing we can control anything beyond ourselves.  

Budo training grants power, pure physical power. If we aren’t careful, we can delude ourselves into believing that the power that comes with the study of budo empowers us to control the world around us. With practice, budo teaches techniques and strategies for fighting, restraining and destroying others. It doesn’t teach how to control the world. It doesn’t really teach how to control anyone except ourselves.

Other people, animals, nature, the entire universe are beyond our control. Even with the most effective restraining techniques we can’t control someone else. A wrist lock or an armbar can only restrain someone temporarily. Even then, someone who doesn’t mind damaging himself can break through. A choke can knock someone unconscious but it doesn’t control them. A strike or throw can break bones and destroy soft tissue, but it doesn’t control anyone. What we can control is ourselves.

Budo asks the fundamental questions about what is important and what isn’t. We each have to answer those questions before we can begin to apply budo lessons well. Once we learn some budo techniques we have to answer for ourselves “What is important enough to hurt someone else over?” Pride? Ego? Love? Anger? Once we have power, we have the responsibility to learn when and how it can be best used. Budo, like any power, used without wisdom, can do more harm to the wielder than to anyone else.

Used on others the power of budo is destructive, allowing us to stop, to hurt, to damage and destroy. Used on ourselves the effects of budo can be positive and creative. That big question, “What is important enough to hurt someone else over?” gets shortened to “What is important?” This question is powerful because if we don’t know what is important, we can be manipulated and influenced over things of no value.

We can’t begin to stay calm and balanced until we know what is important. The thing that surprises me is how short the list of really important things is for me. I treasure people and nature. I value art and beauty. I value knowledge. All of those things are important enough for me to act to protect. Knowing what is important is the first step in controlling yourself. Without it you can be goaded into anger or foolish acts as easily as a child in the schoolyard. Asking what’s important to us is a critical step towards learning to stay calm, in control and balanced.

We practice budo and we learn to distinguish real threats from insubstantial ones, bluster from physical danger. Is what’s happening a real danger? Is it a bluff, a bird puffing up its feathers to look bigger than it really is, or a gorilla making dominance displays before smashing a rival?  Self control, self-discipline and wise action demand that we be able to distinguish between these.

Budo doesn’t just teach a bunch of techniques. Critical is learning to assess capability and range. People do a lot of posturing in the office, but they almost never do anything actually violent. They will try to intimidate by standing uncomfortably close or leaning over someone, but they’re not going to risk their livelihood and career by doing anything. They’ll imply the physical threat. They want you to react unconsciously to the threat.

If you are reacting unconsciously to people, you’re not in control of yourself and you are easily knocked off balance by others. Applied budo is not the art of harming other people, but the art of mastering yourself. You train hard. You go to the dojo and practice taking ukemi so you can be thrown around without getting hurt. Along the way you discover something about what actually hurts and what is just discomfort and annoyance. You learn to avoid injury and choose when to let discomfort bother you and when to ignore it.

Then we start to learn about spacing, at what range you’re vulnerable and where you’re safe. You learn to control the spacing. You can’t control someone else, but you can control their relationship to you so they can’t get close enough to endanger you. You practice attacking and being attacked so you understand the nuances of spacing down to a few centimeters. You learn to choose your action based on understanding what’s important and what’s a real danger.

Then, as you spend more time studying budo, you start applying the same lessons and principles to dealing with things that don’t involve physical danger and the risk of getting hurt. Is that snide remark really a threat to me, or just bluster? Should I take offense and counterattack, or do I practice ukemi with a self-deprecating agreement? We’re social beings and social attacks can be just as painful as physical attacks. Those budo lesson questions and lessons about what’s important and recognizing the difference between a genuine threat and puffed up bluster apply just as well in the office.

Ukemi isn’t just about how to fall down. It’s how you receive an attack. The ukemi for receiving attacks in a social setting are just as important as the ones for when you’re thrown. They might be more important, since social attacks are more common, and if you’re social ukemi is good it can de-escalate an otherwise unpleasant situation. It’s important that you be in control enough that you can choose your action rather than just reacting.

We can’t control the world. We can’t control other people. The only thing we can control is ourselves. We don’t decide how people will act or how they will react. Budo teaches us to relax, breathe and deal with things as they are, knowing the difference between what’s important and what isn’t. Budo happens when we know what’s important and choose our actions based on that knowledge rather than letting the world write a script for us.



Monday, October 3, 2016

”The" Way, Ways, and our Assumptions





The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way;
The names that can be named are not unvarying names.
It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang;
The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind.
Truly, “Only he that rids himself forever of desire can see the Secret Essences”;
He that has never rid himself of desire can see only the Outcomes.
These two things issued from the same mould, but nevertheless are different in name.
This “same mould” we can but call the Mystery, Or rather the “Darker than any Mystery”,
The Doorway whence issued all Secret Essences.
                        Arthur Waley (1)

Or

The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.

The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.

Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.

These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery -
The gateway of the manifold secrets.
                D. C. Lau  (2)

These are just two of the many translations of the Dao De Ching that have been done in English. No one translation will ever be definitive. Some are much better than others, but I don’t think any of them is completely wrong. Each carries something thing of original Chinese, but each also carries much that comes from the assumptions and understandings of the person doing the translation, and the language into which it is translated.

Languages and cultures are so deeply intertwined I doubt it’s possible to separate them. Cultural assumptions influence how language is used. Linguistic assumptions and rules frame how culture is viewed. What are our cultural and linguistic assumptions that might contribute to how we think about and conceive the budo we practice?  

We assume this or that, that things are clearly black or white. Japanese culture assumes that instead of “either/or”, things can be “both/and”  Dichotomies make things simple to understand, but that simple understanding masks the interconnected reality of things that can be both this AND that at the same time.

English imposes certain frameworks that we don’t notice until they are removed by learning a language that doesn’t use the same frames. Two examples can immediately impact how we think about the above passage from the Dao De Ching.

Articles (“the”, “a”) mean that for countable objects we have to immediately decide if something is unique, and use “the” to denote this, or just one out of many, and use “a” to denote that.  What if you read the above translations without the articles? Does that change the feeling? For some reason, English speakers long ago decided that singular occurrences of things had to be distinguished from multiple occurrences. When Chinese and Japanese developed, the question of one versus many wasn’t an issue.

So what happens if we change the all the instances where nouns are translated as singular above to plural?  Chinese doesn’t divide objects into singular or plural, thereby forcing the verb to adjust to these categories. Things don’t have to be exclusively “the”.  There is an old saying that there are many paths up the mountain, but they all lead to the same place. What happens if we accept the ambiguity of not clarifying singular or plural?

It’s amazing that so many questions can be raised; so many possibilities, so many things can be changed just by recognizing a couple of the assumptions we weren’t aware we were making.  The language we speak provides a theoretical framework for understanding the world. We absorb that framework as we absorb the language, when we are small children. We don’t question the framework that our mother tongue provides until we start learning a language that uses a different framework.

Learning budo means stepping into a world dominated by a completely different framework, one that comes out of 1000 years of Japanese culture and language. Like American culture though, it has roots that go far deeper and draw on ideas that are far older than Japan. The United States looks to ancient Greece and Rome for the origin of ideas about citizenship, democracy and what it means to be a member of society.

Japan has been drawing upon the wealth of more than 3,000 years of Chinese thought. The works of Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu and Yang Hsiung, as well as all manner of Buddhist thought have influenced Japanese culture, language and philosophy since perhaps the 4th century C.E.  Japan has a very different culture from that of China, so just as English speakers impose our unconscious frameworks on Chinese translations, the Japanese have looked at Chinese writings through their own framework. Over the centuries Japanese culture and language have worked their magic and created wonderful new ideas and ways of understanding things.

One wonderful set of ideas and concepts comes to us in the forms of budo.  What preconceptions and frameworks do we bring to budo practice from our language and culture? One of the first examples that leaps to mind is mind, or better, 心 kokoro. This is also the character read as shin in mushin 無心, zanshin 残心, and fudoshin 不動心.

We all know that mushin is no mind, and that zanshin means remaining mind and fudoshin means immovable mind.  The problem is that they do mean those things. We have a tendency to learn those meanings and then stop because we think we’ve got it. Kokoro is more complex than just meaning what English speakers think of as “mind.”

In English, the mind is thought of as the seat of reason and intellect. It’s sheared off from the emotions, which are conceptualized as residing in the heart. If you think about it, this is kind of strange, since we now know that emotions and reason are all tied up together in the brain. In Japanese, they have always conceived of reason and emotions together.  They call it kokoro 心.

Most translators (including me sometimes) just go with translating 心 as mind. It takes extra effort to explain that it really means what is both heart and mind in English. Then you have to come up with a way to express that more complex meaning because English doesn’t have a word for it. What happens if we change the words we use to translate these?

        Mushin   -   no mind    
mushin   -  no heart     
mushin  -   no emotions
        Zanshin  -  remaining mind
        Zanshin  -  remaining heart
Zanshin  -  remaining emotions
Fudoshin - Immovable mind
Fudoshin - Immovable heart
Fudoshin - Immovable emotions

The meanings become more nuanced, more complex. It makes sense that budo deals with the emotions as much as the intellect.  Making someone angry so they’ll make mistakes in the heat of emotion is a tactic as old as humanity. All that talk about the mushin, zanshin, fudoshin  and similar terms addresses the emotional just as much as the rational. It’s not enough to quiet your thoughts if your emotions are running riot. It doesn’t matter if your rational mind is solid and steady as the foundation of a house if your emotions can be tossed about like a dry leaf in the breeze.

One instance where my experience as an independent-minded, independence-obsessed American teenager really got in the way of understanding what was going on was the area of reigi or etiquette. This is a huge topic in Japanese culture, so naturally it is of great importance in Japanese arts like budo.

Americans spent a lot of blood in fights to make sure everyone was equal before the law, and that no one earned special treatment simply by virtue of who their parents were. We work hard to make it clear that everyone is equal. I call all the Americans I work with, from the kid just hired to empty trash cans to the general manager, by their first names.  This was the expectation when I first walked into a dojo.

Japanese people also hold everyone equal before the law, but that’s where concern with equality ends. Culturally, Japan is obsessed with the nuances that make us different. Things like age, who your teacher is, and how long you’ve been training, in addition to what rank you may hold, are all of vital interest in figuring out relative social position. English speakers are worried about whether we’re dealing with one or many. Japanese speakers can’t even conjugate a verb until they know what their conversation partner’s relative social status is.

Verbs are literally conjugated differently whether you are talking to someone of lower status (teacher to student for example), equal status (students or teachers of the same level) or higher status (student to teacher). With social status that intrinsic to the way people think, etiquette quickly becomes a major issue. Using the wrong verb form is one of the classic ways to insult someone in Japanese. Fights can be caused by the inadvertent use of the wrong verb form. The intentional use of the wrong verb form does start fights.

One of the many uses of etiquette is to communicate information about relative social position and understanding. If you don’t know the basic etiquette, it’s clear that don’t know anything else about the art either. Without the etiquette you can be certain you’ll offend someone. I got treated with the indulgence of a small child when I first went to Japan, and thank goodness for that. Small children and big foreigners aren’t expected to know how to behave, but both are expected to pay attention and learn.

I saw many non-Japanese who were satisfied with the social assumptions they arrived with and didn’t make any real effort to learn new ways of thinking about social relationships. They didn’t go very far in Japan. I didn’t either until I gave up the ideas about social relationships that I assumed were natural and best. Once I stopped clinging to what I knew, and accepted the fact that Japanese ideas and assumptions about social relationships and etiquette are just as natural to them as the ones I grew up with were to me, I started to make progress in being part of Japanese society.

It took longer than I care to admit for me to realize that trying to force what my assumptions of what was natural only caused friction and got me gently excluded from social occasions  that I might mess up.. It was only when I stopped asking why people couldn’t see the good sense of my way, and just asked myself “What is their way?” that I began to get any degree of acceptance and respect. It seems obvious from this distance, but when I was in the midst of it, letting go of my own assumptions was tough

We have to make assumptions to get started in budo. If we don’t make any linguistic and cultural assumptions we can’t take the first step on the journey.  We need a framework in which to place what we learn and to link our budo to the rest of our lives. Those assumptions aren’t bad. They’re only bad if we don’t go back and reconsider them as our understanding deepens. We have to be ready to knock a support out of our framework from time to time when we discover it’s interfering with our growth and replace it with a new structure that better accommodates the growing understanding. 

 1.  The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought, Allen & Unwin, London, 1934.

2. Tao Te Ching Penguin Books, 1963