Ōn 恩 is a ubiquitous concept in Japanese culture. It means a debt or obligation of gratitude. This is no simple “I owe you a favor” gratitude. That’s covered in the concept of giri 義理. Ōn includes the kind of combined obligation and gratitude that we owe to our parents and grandparents for all the care and kindness they have given us. Ōn covers those areas where our obligations are so great we can never truly repay them. Within Japanese culture, this sort of obligation extends to our teachers and the creators of the arts we practice.
|Kano Jigoro, found of Kodokan Judo|
The longer I’ve been on this journey and the more time I spend in Japan though, the more my sense of obligation grows. As I realize all I gain from practice, my understanding of what I owe to my teachers and their teachers and all who have travelled the path before me grows. Some days it feels completely normal to think about the fact that I’m practicing techniques, principles and ways of movement and engaging with the world that go back hundreds and hundreds of years. Other days it just seems impossible that some guy from suburban Detroit could end up training with world class teachers in these incredible traditions.
My teachers are not employees. They aren’t teaching me because I pay them money. They are teaching me out of a love of their art and their sense of obligation to their teachers and all those who went before them, back through the centuries to the founder of the school. They have their own sense of obligation to the their teachers and the art. The longer I train with them, the more I feel it as well.
My teachers have accepted me into their dojo and their art. That alone is an incredible thing. When I first moved to Japan, there really weren’t a huge number of non-Japanese training in classical traditions. In the country outside Kyoto where I lived, there weren’t any non-Japanese training in even modern traditions like Kodokan Judo. I was the first in that area. For a teacher in Japan to really accept a you as a student is a huge risk. The teacher becomes responsible for anything the student does. I didn’t understand that when I first moved to Japan. In the same way, I didn’t understand my obligations to my judo teacher.
If I messed up, my teacher would have been responsible for helping to clean up the mess and make things right. From the moment a teacher acknowledges you as their student, you assume the rather large obligation not to do anything that would embarrass your teacher, or force her to have to clean up after you. That means not getting drunk in public and causing a scene. It means controlling your temper at the office and at home (homes are close together and have thin walls. Believe it that your neighbors can hear what’s going on).
As a beginning student, the obligations aren’t too huge. Train, study, help keep the dojo clean and don’t do anything to embarrass my teacher. Eventually I stopped being a beginning student. I started taking on responsibility for my teacher. At some point everyone expected me to be able to demonstrate the basics correctly, consistently.
The obligations grow slowly but inexorably.
The dojo becomes more and more a real home where you are secure (but not comfortable). The people in the dojo become trusted friends with whom you share the treasure and joy that is training. As I grow in the art, many of the things I gain are difficult to express, and impossible to assign value to. The comfort in my own skin that grows from years and years of training is immeasurable. How do you place a value on being comfortable enough with yourself that storms of emotion and stress can blow around you without disturbing you?
The self-knowledge and understanding that good budo training develops is difficult to describe. People often misinterpret the calm, imperturbable demeanor of a mature martial artist as being self-confidence derived from their physical ability to fight. If that was the truth, that calm would be a weak and easily broken thing only prepared to deal with someone attacking with hands or weapons. It would be worthless against other sorts of stress and disturbances.
One of my jodo teachers thought to give me a lesson I really appreciate. One day shortly before I was due to move back to the US, he drew me aside at the end of practice and said “You need this experience.” Then he pulled a steel sword out of his bag. Jodo is usually practiced against a bokuto, a wooden sword. Wooden swords hurt more than enough when you screw up and get hit with one in my opinion. I didn’t think there was any need to risk more intense pain with a steel blade. Sensei disagreed.
He named off 3 kata he wanted to do with me facing the steel sword. I noted that all three of them involve strong attacks against the jo side by the sword. I was a more than a little apprehensive about all of this as we faced off, bowed to each other and Sensei began advancing toward me with steel sword. I managed somehow to reach down inside and calm myself enough that I could deal with the attack. Sensei came in and attacked just as the kata called for, and I responded to the attack with something close to the proper timing and technique. Though my heart may have been beating a bit faster than when we usually do these kata, I managed to keep my breathing fairly steady, stay focused and remain relatively calm while Sensei tried to cut me in two.
At the time, I thought Sensei was giving me experience dealing with a steel sword. I was wrong. Sensei was giving me a lesson in how to deal with myself. This is a much more universally useful lesson than just how to react when someone attacks with a steel sword. That lesson was identical to the lessons on what to do when someone attacks with a wooden sword. Get out of the way of the attack and then counterattack.
This lesson could be described as “How to deal with myself when something big and unexpected happens.” I’ve used this lesson in how to reach down inside myself and maintain steady breathing, a clear focus and calm mind even when people are going to pieces around me. My heart rate may go up depending on the situation, but I’m the only person who has any need to be aware of that. The rest of the world gets to deal with someone who is clear, calm and in control of himself. That’s a heck of a lesson to get from a guy with a sword.
I don’t know where else I could get a lesson like that. This isn’t a sport. This is a classical budo.
“Win or lose, it’s how you play the game” sounds nice, but in classical budo it’s often more of “Do it right or get hurt.” The lessons are structured to get you to a place where you can deal with that. I don’t think Sensei came up with the real sword jo practice himself. I have a feeling that he had that experience and found it valuable, so he passed it on to me. How many generations of teachers and students this goes back I don’t know, but I am eternally grateful to all of them. This is a lesson that has served me well over and over.
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My budo teachers have given me the dojo as my haven, school room, and proving ground. It’s an awesome place to spend my time. They have shared their wonderful treasure, these budo traditions. It’s not something they just hand out. The senior teachers are maintainers, preservers, guardians and sometime innovators. They have absorbed all the lessons that their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers have discovered and developed, going back generations. Judo goes back about 6 generations. Shinto Muso Ryu goes back nearly 20 generations. Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu goes back even further than that.
I owe an immense debt to all of the teachers and students of the arts I study. It’s a debt I cannot possibly repay. How can I possibly thank the founders of my Kodokan Judo or Shinto Muso Ryu? I know I can’t, but I am aware of how much I owe them for the physical skills of the arts, the haven and place of wonder that is the dojo, and all the other things and lessons that have come to me through the practice of their arts. That feeling of a debt that can never be repaid is a considerable part of Ōn 恩.
Just because I can never make full payment on the debt I owe to my teachers and those who went before us doesn’t mean I can’t do anything. I express that gratitude to my teachers and all those who have passed the art on to me. If you spend time in a dojo in Japan, you’ll notice that senior students and the teachers are often the first ones to grab brooms at the end of practice and start sweeping the floor. If you a lucky enough to be able to get to the dojo early before practice, you’re likely to discover the teacher quietly sweeping the floor and cleaning up the dojo for practice. Juniors have to be very early to be lucky enough to get to clean up for keiko. Getting to do it is another way of expressing gratitude for all the things you feel ōn for.
I really do worry about not doing anything to embarrass or cause problems for my teachers. It’s one of the biggest concerns I have with writing posts for this blog. Am I going to say something that causes problems for my teachers? That little editor is always chattering away at the back of my mind. I try to ensure that my behavior will never cause them any concern and certainly make sure I don’t create any messes they will have to clean up.
When I started, being on time to practice, working hard, helping clean up after keiko and not being a jerk were enough. The longer I train, the greater the size of the debt I owe that I will never be able to repay. The more of a sense of ōn I have. Now sweeping the dojo, working hard and not being a jerk don’t seem like nearly enough, but what is?
I accept responsibility. I can show Sensei how much I appreciate what he has shared with me by teaching it to others and making sure that the river of our tradition does not dry up and end with me. I share and I teach and work at growing the art. Some of my teachers are no longer here for me to thank. I teach new students and make sure they know these men and women lived and contributed so much to their being able to learn budo now.
Kodokan Judo is everywhere. I have heard it is the second most popular participant sport in the world, behind football (soccer). Koryu budo are not so widely practiced, nor are they intended to be. They are intended to continue from generation to generation. I do what I can to make sure the ryuha grow into a new generation, and that the new generation is worthy of the treasure the great teachers have showered upon me.
This much harder than I expected because I want to be a worthy teacher of the lessons I have received. The result is that I put a good deal more consideration into what I’m doing and it takes more effort than I ever expected. Which lessons are right for each student? I know students can’t leap from lesson to lesson. They have to work on and practice and polish each lesson until it enters their muscles and bones. That doesn’t happen with one or two classes. I’ve had to develop a new sort patience while I try to make payments on this debt to my own teachers.
To my surprise, I find a special joy in seeing students grow and develop in budo, and seeing the arts flow into a new generation. There is something deeply satisfying about seeing the growth and development of a student. That’s another debt to my teachers that I will not be able to repay.
Ōn seems like a heavy burden, but it is one that is wonderful carry. How can I not be thankful for this sense of gratitude when it comes from all the wonder filled and amazing things I have received through budo practice? I even appreciate this sense of Ōn.