Showing posts with label Etiquette. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Etiquette. Show all posts

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Budo Virtues

I saw another list of budo virtues today. These lists always include things like strength, loyalty, righteousness, knowledge, honesty, and such.  In truth, these lists always seem to be little more than another version of the Boy Scout Law: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. We can do better than just repeat some simple platitudes that everyone already agrees on and no one will argue with.

The five virtues that consistently show up on every list of samurai virtue are jin 仁 benevolence, gi 義 righteousness, chi 智 wisdom, shin 信 honesty, and rei 礼 etiquette.  Another that often makes the list is chu 忠 loyalty.  These are fine virtues, and certainly anyone who masters and exemplifies them will be an exceptionally fine person. The only problem with calling them budo virtues or samurai virtues or bushido virtues is that they aren’t. These virtues aren’t even really Japanese.

Calligraphy of chi, jin, gi, rei and shin by Kiyama Hirosi.Photo copyright Peter Boylan 2015

They are Chinese, and they were laid out in 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E., about 1900 years before the samurai class came into being. The person responsible for framing these particular virtues was Confucius. Confucius was a brilliant teacher and thinker, and even after 2600 years, it is difficult to find fault with the virtues he emphasized. So please, give poor Confucius the credit he deserves for these virtues. After all, he’s had to suffer from centuries of truly horrible jokes by Westerners. At least give him the credit and respect he deserves.

Japan was heavily influenced by Chinese art, religion, culture, and philosophy. Everyone recognizes that Japan adopted writing from China, and imported Buddhism, starting with the 6 sects of Nara (now nearly forgotten), but gaining widespread popularity with the coming of Shingon and Tendai Buddhism in the Heian Era, Pure Land Buddhism early in the Kamakura Era, and Zen entering later in the Kamakura Era.

Confucian teachings entered sometime in the 600s, and proved to be exceptionally influential. During the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868) Neo-Confucianism actually became officially recognized by the Tokugawa government. The primary virtues though have not changed in more than 2600 years. They are jin, gi, rei, chi, and shin.

Known as The Five Constants, after 2600 years of philosophical development, simply boiling them down to benevolence, righteousness, etiquette, wisdom, and trust doesn’t begin to explain the complex philosophical, social and ethical concepts represented by the kanji characters 仁義礼智信. So if they aren’t special for the samurai and budo, and they can represent a lot more than just simple concepts, what are they?

These are values viewed as optimal in making a member of society. Confucius wasn’t interested in just an exemplary individual, but an individual who fulfilled vital roles in every level of society, from the family to the top levels of government. The samurai of Tokugawa Era Japan were looking for the same things. It might be more accurate though to say that Japanese society was looking for these things from the samurai.

The values are not unique to budo or the martial world.  They are great social values.  In fact the only one that strikes me as being particularly useful in combat is 智 chi, or wisdom. Wisdom in a fight is great. On the other hand, and emphasis on things like benevolence, righteousness, honesty and etiquette seem like good ways to get killed in combat.  These aren’t the values a warrior prizes. They are the values society prizes in all good citizens. Think about things that  might make a good warrior. Benevolence, honesty and etiquette probably don’t make the list.

If these aren’t particular warrior values, why try to tie them closely to budo? Perhaps because budo is a way of developing human beings who happen to be warriors, rather than being a way of developing warriors.  If a society wants to develop great human beings, teachings have to focus on things like benevolence, righteousness, wisdom, honesty and appropriate behavior.

There are two values that are often placed above the others.  One is jin. It encompasses not just benevolence, but also the sense of humanity. People who embody jin care about others and act from that spirit.  Thus they are not selfish or hurtful. They don’t act out to display their power or strength. They act to build up others and to make society benevolent and caring. People who display a great deal of jin are the sort of people you want to be around They are  warm, caring, and empathetic.

Oddly enough, the other value that is held high is rei. Americans in particular can’t imagine how etiquette and bowing could possibly be so important. Originally Confucius was talking about particular rituals being performed. By the time the Japanese got hold of his ideas though, rei encompassed etiquette and social norms.People from cultures where formal social behavior and customs are limited have trouble understanding their value.

I wrote about one aspect of rei in my last blog. In this context it’s a much bigger concept than the limited aspect I addressed last time. Etiquette is not just about the formal, easy to write down aspects like who to bow to and how low the bow should be. It’s about all aspects of social encounters and doing what is right and appropriate all the time. We all know people who seem to move through both casual and formal situations without effort, smoothly dealing with each different person so the everyone feels comfortable with them and no one is slighted or insulted. These people are masters of rei.

Jin and rei together make for pretty great person to be around, and these two virtues make each other warmer and more pleasant for everyone. Wisdom without humanity and benevolence is a lobbyist for sale to the highest bidder. Someone who has mastered socializing and handling people but who lacks jin and shin (honesty) is a dangerous manipulator to be avoided. Honesty might be the best policy, but by itself it won’t go very far by itself. Righteousness, right behaviour is great, unless it is unleavened by wisdom and benevolence. Without those it can quickly turn into stiff necked insistence on one way of doing things without consideration for effects.

Together jin, gi, chi, shin, and rei make for a wonderful human being. Look at any warrior, be it soldier, police officer, prison guard or bouncer. They spend a startlingly small amount of time fighting. They live in society. They need these virtues much more each day than they need any of the virtues I’ve seen held up as unique to the warrior. Things like courage, honor, fidelity, discipline, self-reliance. These are great things, but they really focus on just the individual, not the individual in society.

For the longest time I couldn’t see the point or value of the classical virtues. The stuff in modern movies and fiction about warriors and heroes was much more appealing. When I tried living by those modern values though I was a stiff-necked, arrogant, prideful, jerk. Yes, I worked hard and was loyal, but by emphasizing courage above wisdom I became reckless. By focusing on honor over appropriateness I was an ass, by focusing on discipline above humanity I could be cold and brutal, and by insisting on self-reliance I was a fool refusing perfectly good assistance.

Jin and chi teach when fighting is a bad idea, even if seems like it might be important. A little humanity and empathy can go a long way towards understanding why someone behaves in a way that invites a fight. A little wisdom and appropriate manners can de-escalate things before it becomes a fight. Even better, good rei can help you navigate situations so they don’t get heated to begin with. Honesty and righteousness can get you into a fight, but there are fights that need to be fought. With jin and chi you can figure out which fights need to be fought and which ones won’t be fights unless you do something stupid. Rei helps you avoid doing stupid stuff.

The so-called budo values are really great social values for everyone, not just martial artists. Benevolence, kindness and empathy are all things the world could use a lot more of.  A little more empathy and there would be far fewer fights. People who really understand rei behave well but don’t cause offense. Righteousness means behaving in a morally upstanding way rather than being stiff necked and inflexible.  Wisdom, well, I shouldn’t have to explain that one, so I won’t. The value of honesty too should not need elaboration.

Martial artists need these classic virtues even more than those who don’t study budo. Budo skills are form of power, and understanding and embodying these virtues can help us avoid misusing that power.  It’s easy to be a bully if you lack jin. A little rei will go a long way towards teaching us when not to put our skill on display. And wisdom. You can never have too much of that.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Budo Begins And Ends With Rei

One mistake I’m beginning to get over, is thinking that proverbs I hear in the dojo are not general to Japanese culture, but are somehow specific to budo. Every time I’ve thought that, I’ve been wrong. Japan was run by a warrior class for hundreds of years. Needless to say, with that kind of history driving the culture, references to budo are quite common in everyday society.  When things are very serious, it’s a “shinken shobu” 真剣勝負, a match with live swords.

There is a phrase often heard in budo circles that came up in a discussion recently.  “Budo begins and ends with a bow.” The original Japanese is 礼に始まり礼に終わる (Rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru). omitting any reference to budo. This phrase is common in Japan, where everything begins and ends with a bow. It’s also where we non-Japanese trip over the translation.  

The “rei” 礼 in “Rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru.” is commonly translated as one of three things; bow, courtesy, or etiquette.  Each of those is correct, and each of them is wrong.  Each is correct in that it captures some component of rei. Each is mostly wrong because it misses the majority of the ideas, meanings and feelings embodied in the concept of rei.
Rei turns out to be a much larger concept than any of the simple translations suggest.  This isn’t the fault of the translators. “Rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru.” is a wonderful little aphorism and when  doing translation, you can’t stop in the middle of the work to add your own 3 or 4 page explanation of one quick phrase, so you go with what feels closest to the intention of the particular passage.

As the diagram above suggests, there is a lot more wrapped up in rei 礼 than any of the simple translations might suggest.  The definition below is from the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary.

れい2【礼】 (rei)

1 〔礼儀〕 etiquette; decorum; propriety; politeness; courtesy; civility. [=れいぎ(さほう)]
2 〔おじぎ〕 a salutation; a salute; a bow; an obeisance;
    3 〔儀式〕 a ceremony; a rite.
    4 〔謝辞〕 thanks; gratitude; acknowledgment; appreciation.

When I first started my journey in the world of Japanese budo, meanings 1 and 2 above seemed the most important to me. The further I journey the less important those become, and the more emphasis falls upon the fourth item “thanks; gratitude; acknowledgment; appreciation.”

Etiquette, courtesy and bowing are all external forms. If those forms are empty and just something you do, they have no meaning. Fill that bow, that formal etiquette with sincere feeling of thanks, gratitude, respect and appreciation and it comes alive for you, and for whomever receives it.  Budo is a way, and a part of that way are the forms of etiquette and courtesy.  

The forms aren’t there just to look nice. They are there to teach us something. When we first start training in a way, they teach us the proper forms so we don’t look like fools and annoy other folks along the way.  At this stage, folks like me have enough trouble just remembering the proper movements and when to do them.  When we forget something there is always some supercilious fool who is more concerned with form than content who is thrilled to demonstrate their superiority by correcting us in the most embarrassing way possible.

As much as I feel sorry for those who have to deal with supercilious fools as they progress along their way, I pity the supercilious fools even more. They’ve missed the entire point of the practice. Etiquette and courtesy are things we should be giving to everyone, those above us and those below us. The most senior, accomplished and masterful martial artists I have encountered are also the most courteous, patient, polite, respectful and forgiving. They have learned and internalized the lessons present in the forms of etiquette and politeness that we use during practice. When they bow, it is not an empty gesture because that is what is expected from them. It is a meaningful symbol of what they think and feel.

First we learn the forms of etiquette and courtesy. Then we learn to fill these empty vessels with gratitude, respect and every other feeling that is valuable. There are many, and I doubt that I have learned them all. The first one, the most obvious, is respect. The first bows in our journey along the way are to our teachers when we are introduced to them and they welcome us as fellow travelers on their path.  It’s easy to bow with respect to them. They will probably be looking for signs that our respect is sincere, and certainly a worthy teacher will bow with respect for her student. After all, the teacher understand intimately just how difficult the journey is, and respects the student who earnestly desires to travel it.

Similar respect is due to all our fellow students. They are showing up for practice, working with us and letting us work with them. And this isn’t ikebana or cha no yu, but budo! If someone is in the dojo practicing with us, they are giving us their body to use for our training, even as we return the favor and let them use our bodies for their training.  This is true whether it is judo or aikido or kenjutsu or jodo or naginata. We are training together. How someone cannot respect a partner who is giving you the gift of their healthy body to train with I cannot fathom. Every time I bow to a training partner it is with respect and honor to them for the great gift they give me by training with me.

That feeling led me to the fourth meaning of 礼 rei in that definition above, thanks, gratitude and appreciation. I really do appreciate my training partners. I couldn’t go any further along the budo path without them than I could without a teacher. True budo is not an isolated practice. It only happens with other people. I respect my teachers and fellow students, but even more, I am grateful and appreciative of them. They make all my practice possible. They give me the gifts of their time and their experience and their wisdom and their bodies to train with. They don’t have to give me any of these things, but all are cheerfully and warmly given.

My gratitude is especially deep when I consider my teachers. I really can’t think of one good reason that Yoshikawa Sensei or Takada Sensei, or any of my other teachers should have been willing to put up with an an uncouth young guy who had only the barest understanding of etiquette and proper behavior, and whose Japanese was certainly not up to the task of easy, clear communication.  

Takada Sensei and Kiyama Sensei in particular are wonders to me. They both fought in World War 2. They had no particular reason to love their former enemies. They have both so transcended that sort of thinking I am amazed whenever I consider it. Takada Sensei used to take great pleasure in explaining the progress of the world by showing them the sword he used for practice. It is a beautiful blade from the 1500s that has been in his family for hundreds of years. It is a huge, heavy beast of a blade made for the wars in Japan at that time. In the 1940s, as Takada Sensei was going off to war himself, he had it remounted with the saya and tsuka of a Japanese infantry officer so he could carry it. It is still mounted that way. He would point out that 60 years before he had carried that sword to war to kill Americans, but now he carried it to share his culture and art with Americans. He had grown, and so had the world. I miss him very much.

Kiyama Sensei is another amazing man of that generation. A fighter pilot during the war, he and Takada Sensei had studied iai with the same teacher in the 1950s. When Takada Sensei passed away, Kiyama Sensei graciously accepted me into his dojo so I could continue my journey. He has welcomed me and taught me and corrected me when I started down dead end paths with warmth and firmness, with courtesy and respect. I’m not special there though. I’ve often watched him at the end of kendo practice. All of the students, from those in kindergarten to those in their 50s and 60s, take a moment to kneel with him, bow and say “Doumo Arigatou Gozaimasu” or “Thank you very much”. Sensei returns every bow with focus and sincerity. He never tosses off a quick bow so he can get on to something else that might seem more important. There are always seniors and other teachers talking with him at this point. He always stops and gives every student, no matter how young or old, his full attention. When they bow, he bows just as deeply and offers them the same appreciation “Doumo Arigatou Gozaimasu.”  

How can a teacher of Kiyama Sensei’s rank and status give so much attention and respect to even the smallest of children? He is no longer following the proper etiquette. Kiyama Sensei acts with the full meaning of 礼 rei. His etiquette is guided by his appreciation and gratitude and respect for each of his students.

How else can I bow when I think of Takada Sensei and Kiyama but with gratitude and appreciation and respect?. Takada Sensei is no longer with me, but I can see that through the study and practice of the violent arts of budo, he and Kiyama Sensei transcended simple etiquette. Kiyama Sensei clearly does respect all of his students. His gratitude and appreciation for them for joining him on this journey is obvious when I think about it.  

This is the lesson of rei ni hajimari rei ni owarimasu. Simply following the etiquette is merely the first step. With practice we hope to learn to respect everyone. We strive to appreciate each person we meet on our journey, and to be grateful for the good they bring into our lives. Pretty deep ideas to hide in some stuffy etiquette.  Everything begins and ends with rei.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Etiquette: Form and Sincerity In Budo

For a lot of people outside Japan, Japanese reishiki  or etiquette seems quite heavy, stylized and empty. There is so much of it in Japanese life that people who live in a low etiquette society such as the US assume that it must be just empty motions that don’t do much other than to make the people at the  top feel feel good about being at the top. Japanese groups appear to move in scripted scenes that don’t leave any room for human feeling and individuality.

This isn’t quite true, but it does take a little while to get familiar enough with how things are done to be able to read what is being done and said through the language of etiquette. Traditionally in Japan, and by this I mean during the Tokugawa Period (roughly 1600 - 1868), much of life was strictly controlled and people worked very hard to make sure they behaved within well known and carefully ordered norms. Getting your etiquette right was critical. It could quite literally be a matter of life and death.

Lord Asano was being instructed in proper Edo court etiquette when he lost his temper, drew a dagger and attacked the instructor, Yoshinaka Kira, setting in motion Asano’s sentence to commit seppuku and his retainers on the path of vengeance that led to Asano’s death and their immortalization in the tale of the 47 Ronin.  Getting the etiquette right was that important. One version of the events holds that it was because Asano felt he was not being properly instructed that he became angry. Whether this is true or not, the fact that it was plausible enough for people to accept it as motivation shows how critical etiquette was.

Thankfully, people in Japan don’t place quite as much importance on etiquette as they did in Asano and Yoshinaka’s time, but it is still extremely important, and people watch how others practice their etiquette quite carefully. Now it is about expressing respect, giving courtesy and honoring people, places and practices.

In the dojo the formal etiquette serves several purposes beyond just the social. It provides structure, a clear understanding of proper behavior, a means of expressing respect and appreciation, and a way of maintaining a safe training environment, among others. While there can be quite a bit of variation in etiquette between various martial arts, and even between dojo that practice the same art, it’s not that difficult to understand the basics. Etiquette is really about expressing respect for people and ideas.  

We take off our shoes and bow when we enter the dojo.  This shows respect for the art that is practiced in the dojo and maintains the basic function of keeping the floor clean and minimizing the amount of time required to clean it.  The dojo is a specially designated space for practicing arts that teach horrific combat skills while also refining students minds and bodies. The bow shouldn’t be tossed off like it’s a bothersome requirement.  It’s a chance to show that you appreciate the art, the person who is teaching it to you, and your fellow travellers on the path that enable  your learning by offering themselves as training partners, as well as your respect for the seriousness of what you are learning. These are certainly things worth a second or two to express your appreciation for. Watch people who regularly just toss off a head bob and come barrelling in without a thought for what they are doing.  Do they treat their partners in the same thoughtless manner?

The bows that open and close keiko, the training itself, are similar.  They are chances to express your appreciation for what the founder of the art you do, and all the teachers down to your own, are sharing with you. You’re not just going through a moldy old Japanese ceremony. That bow is a chance for you to think briefly about what practicing the art means for you and to express it through your action. If someone is watching, they should be able to tell that you care about what you are doing. You shouldn’t look like you are only doing it because you have to do it before you’re allowed to train.

Find Martial Arts Equipmet from martial artists for martial artists

The other big piece of etiquette that is common across all Japanese arts is bowing to your teacher and training partners. I’ll be honest, it’s a lot easier not being Japanese in a dojo in Japan. For the Japanese bowing can be a carefully calibrated activity. How deeply they bow is dependent upon what their social status is relative to the person they are bowing to. This can get complicated fast, but the basics are you bow deeper the lower your status is compared to the person you are bowing to. So you bow relatively deeply for your teacher, deeply for her teacher, and very deeply for the head of your art In Japan people pay close attention to this, and many businesses will give new employees classes to be sure they are doing it right and won’t offend any customers.  

Here’s a nice video of ladies in kimono demonstrating a variety of different bows that would be used when greeting people of varying social status, and doing so perfectly.

Not being Japanese or in Japan, we don’t have to worry about getting just the right angle and depth to our bow to express the precise degree of relative social rank. We should still bow with sincerity though. We can take the tenth of a second required to make it more than just a motion we go through and turn the bow into an expression of how much we appreciate what we are learning from our teacher. If we are bowing to a training partner, it’s a chance to show our thanks that they will let us train using their body. It is all too common for people to forget that our training partners are making a gift of their bodies. They are trusting us to train using their body and to not damage them while we are learning. That’s a huge gift and deserves a sincere expression of respect. Don’t make the bow perfunctory.

These are the major points of etiquette in all the budo dojo I’ve trained in. We bow when we enter the dojo. We bow at the beginning of practice and again at the end.  We bow to each person we practice with. Different arts will have a little more than this, but I can’t imagine any Japanese budo that will have less.

Many iaido systems include a bow to the sword at the beginning and end of training.  Considering that a genuine shinken is an extremely expensive work of art comprising the efforts of several master artisans, and that it should outlast any individual user by a thousand years or more, it seems appropriate to express respect and gratitude to the makers and to the instrument they created that we have the opportunity to train with for a short while. Some aikido dojo make a point of bowing to their bokuto and jo when they take them out and put them away. Many koryu systems have special bows for beginning and ending kata practice that show respect for the opponent and partner, but also a complete focus on them as a threat.

There are lots of variations on the basic theme of expressing respect and courtesy but the basic format of bowing into the dojo, bowing at the beginning and ending of practice, and bowing to your training partners never seems to vary. If you do this with clear and sincere intention to show respect and honor, and you sincerely strive to be courteous, I have found that people tend to overlook honest mistakes. If you are sincerely trying to be polite and follow the local etiquette, regardless of how new and different it may be, people will appreciate the sincerity and help you get the details right the next time.
It’s very easy to see when someone is not sincere about the etiquette, and people will treat you with the respect that you express in your etiquette. If showing respect in your etiquette is to much of bother for you, and you insist on slouching through it, people will take this as sign of your respect for them and what they do, and treat you accordingly.

First and always, dojo etiquette should be sincere. The formal etiquette serves serves many purposes beyond providing a way for people to show respect for each other but it is always about showing respect and appreciation. This is true even for those incredible, aggressive bows the koryu folks do. If you don’t show respect when you bow in with them, they are likely to let you know how they feel about being disrespected, and it won’t be a comfortable experience.

I only get to bow to my teacher a few times a year now, because I live 6000 miles away from him.  When I do get to spend time with him, I want everything I do to express my respect for him as a teacher, my appreciation for what he has taught me, and my love of him as a person.  There is no room for stiff, empty form with all that within my heart. Kiyama Sensei will be 90 years old this year, and I know that each visit could well be the last chance I will have to express these things to him. With all that feeling driving my etiquette there is nothing stiff or empty in the etiquette between us. Instead every bow and interaction is filled with warmth and appreciation.  I use all my actions to show my appreciation and respect.

Etiquette and reishiki isn’t about putting teachers on pedestals or for controlling students.  It’s about showing respect for the people you are learning from, the partners who are helping you to learn, and the art you are learning. There is nothing there that isn’t worth showing sincere respect for.  If you don’t sincerely respect your teacher, the people you are training with and the art you are practicing, you shouldn’t be there.  Budo etiquette is about showing everyone how much we respect, appreciate and honor what we are doing and those we are doing it with.

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.

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.