Showing posts with label feeling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label feeling. Show all posts

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.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Budo Training Is Exhilarating!

Budo practice is exhilarating.  I’ve been searching for the right word to describe how I feel about practice and how it makes me feel for years.  Obviously I’m kind of slow if I’m just now figuring this out, but hey, after more than 25 years of exhilarating budo practice being thrown around, choked unconscious and beaten with sticks, maybe there’s a reason it’s taken me so long to figure it out.

People always ask if budo is fun, as if it is a game or a sport.  Some bits of it are fun, but they are an awfully small portion of my budo practice.  It’s difficult to call long practice sessions trying to master the proper swing of a sword, or the best way to unbalance someone, or the proper technique for sweeping someone’s weapon out of the way “fun.”  They are challenging and intriguing and full of learning, but fun is not the word to describe them.  That feeling when the sword flashes through the air and feels like it is doing the cutting itself and you’re just along for the ride?  Exhilarating.  The moment when you touch someone so their balance vanishes and they don’t even know you’ve done it and the throw happens as if they had jumped for you?  Exhilarating.  When you get the sweep just right and your partner’s weapon effortlessly whips around and behind them and maybe right out of their fingers?  Definitely exhilarating.

Even when I don’t make those great leaps in understanding or technical ability though, budo is exhilarating.  The focus it requires and teaches is wonderful.  Getting every part of my body and mind to act as one, coordinated whole just feels fantastically exhilarating.  Iai is certainly one of the least exciting forms of budo to watch.  When done properly it is every bit as intense as any of the paired practice forms such as kenjutsu or jujutsu.  Everything comes together and drives forward with an intensity and force that blocks out the rest of the world and leaves me panting with exhaustion in minutes.   The ability to focus like that on something, even for a short while, is an amazing feeling.    It’s certainly not fun, and it’s definitely not relaxing, although it does seem to drive the tension and stress out of my body and mind.  It’s exhilarating.

Then there is paired practice like kenjutsu or jodo or any of the other delightful weapons we train with.  You and a partner are actively trying to bash each other with big sticks, and getting hit is a real possibility if either of you makes a mistake.  There’s just no way to call this “fun.”  What it is, is fabulously focusing and energizing.  The rest of the world vanishes as you focus on your partner’s intent and your own.  There is no room for your mind to hold onto anything else.  If you try to, you’re going home with big, beautiful bruises.  All you have room for is the awareness or your partner, her weapon, the range at which that weapon is dangerous and where yours is, and how she is moving.  She attacks filled with the intent of smashing you into the ground and yet your movement is just enough to avoid being struck while your counterattack steals her space and leaves her dangerously off-balance and unable to move, all in a single heartbeat of action.  Absolutely exhilarating.

The free practices, known as randori in judo and aikido (though they are quite different) and ji-geiko in kendo, are deeply intense, energetic, powerful practices with you and your partner both giving everything to the training, whether you are focusing on developing and refining specific techniques in an unstructured situation, or going at it full-on to dominate and master your partner.  It’s not “fun” in any sense of the word that I’m familiar with, but it is wonderful.  Often it’s quite uncomfortable, especially when then bruises are tender.  Still, the feeling, from the moment someone says “Hajime!” until well after the randori has ended, is one of exhilaration.  I’m out there working with my whole body, and trust me, when those small muscles all over your body ache they next day you know you were using the whole thing.  You’re also using your whole mind trying to figure out the puzzle your partner is offering you.  Some days you figure out the puzzle in front of you, and some days you are the puzzle that is being figured out.  Either way though, it’s exhilarating.  When I take a really big fall, thrown by that 275 lb (125 kg) guy who sends me flying half way across the dojo and then lands on me, and I get up without any pain or problem because the ukemi was good, it is exhilarating knowing I can survive something like that.  It’s even more exhilarating than when I throw him, although that is a different kind of exhilaration, the exhilaration of achieving something I really wasn’t sure I could do.  When it’s all over and someone yells “Yame!” and we all bow and thank each other, the feeling of exhilaration continues.  It lasts out the door, all the way home and often well into the next day.  That feeling of doing things that are truly difficult, both throwing and being thrown, succeeding and failing, is exhilarating.  

               Budo is not fun.  Fun is too small a word for what I feel when I train.  Fun is a game of euchre at lunch, watching a baseball game with friends.  Fun is pick-up basketball or a tea party with your kids.  These are worth doing.  They are fun.  But they aren’t exhilarating.  They don’t leave your body and mind flushed with the intensity of focusing completely on one thing and directing all your energy to one target.  They don’t leave you exhausted, wrung out and relaxed from the work of gathering all your energy into one focused mass and throwing it at your target through the budo.

That’s the feeling I get from budo practice, exhilaration.  At the end of practice I’m wrung out and exhausted, with my brain dribbling out my ears from the effort to do everything well, to analyze what I’m doing to and try to improve it a smidge every time I do it.  How else can you describe the feeling of someone genuinely trying to beat you with a stick while you block and dodge and control his attacks without getting hit?  The feeling of getting that 275 lbs guy up in the air and flying, or the joy when someone makes you fly and go slamming into the ground and it doesn’t hurt is just amazing.  It’s exhilarating.  Now I know what to say to all those people who ask if budo is fun.  I tell them “No, it’s exhilarating.”