Monday, May 29, 2017


by Phillip Starr

I would hope that the majority of my readers would be more than a little familiar with the basic forms of etiquette that are typically practiced within the training hall. Students line up prior to the start of class, bow to the instructor, and then begin the training session. The same thing is done at the conclusion of the training period. Most of the participants don't give it much of a second thought. It's simply a way of “showing respect” to the teacher; an “Eastern oddity” that is practiced more as a form of tradition and simple courtesy than anything else. It requires no more than a few seconds, anyway. No big deal. it?

To the average person, such quaint customs are nothing more than polite gestures that they are expected to learn and then regurgitate at the appropriate time. Usually, they are devoid of any real substance; they are regarded as old-fashioned, cultural oddities that were developed and practiced by our ancestors. However, to the bugeisha (a person who practices the traditional martial ways of the East), they are much more than that. Much. More.

For instance, let's take the beginning of class. Students are ordered to line up. Their lines should be straight and students adopt the position of “readiness.” In some schools, the most senior student (who may assist the instructor) stands off to one side at a right angle to the students and the instructor. Your stance should never look limp or sloppy. Your uniform should be neat and clean. Your body, mind, and spirit are held in a state of readiness. It is a preparation for learning, a preparation to face yourself. Your eyes should be directed straight ahead but peripheral vision must be maintained. You should not shift their eyes from side to side or turn your head. You remain focused on your instructor.

At this point, some schools have the students and the instructor perform a standing bow. Others, particularly Japanese disciplines, order students to kneel down (and yes, there is a special way of doing this) in the position of seiza with the feet tucked under the buttocks. Beginners will find this position more than a little uncomfortable but they must avoid any display of discomfort. To do so is to show that one's spirit is weak and in a martial arts school this is entirely unacceptable.

In Japanese schools the command of “mokuso!” is uttered by the instructor. Students sit quietly with their backs straight and their eyes almost shut. Many people refer to this as a period of meditation prior to the beginning of class but this is incorrect. Rather, it is a period of quiet introspection. It is way of leaving your mental and emotional “baggage” at the door so that it will not interfere with training and your ability to learn. It is a time for focusing on what you want to achieve during this particular class. You “clean” yourself and prepare to receive instruction.

After a short time, the teacher may turn to the front of the school (with his back to the students) and they all perform a formal kneeling bow to the front of school. He then turns to face the students again and they exchange bows to show respect for each other.

As with everything else in the training hall, there is a proper way to execute the standing and kneeling bows. For instance, I remember when I first received instruction in this ancient tradition. We were told that even when bowing, one must not take one's eyes off the opponent (or whomever one is bowing to). Thus, we craned our necks and rolled our eyes upwards when we bowed so as to keep our partners in view. As you might expect, my instruction came from a Westerner who didn't clearly understand how the proper bow is to be done. The first time I did this in front of a Japanese instructor, I was quickly corrected. To crane one's neck and raise the eyes as I was doing is considered very rude because it demonstrates an obvious mistrust of the person(s) to whom one is bowing. Rather, the neck is kept aligned with the back and the eyes are are allowed to drift slightly upwards (without raising the eyebrows) so as to allow a reasonably full view of the other person.

And of course, all movements must be performed from the tanden (in Chinese, dantien) so as to permit complete control over one's body at all times. Moving from this area, which is located about three finger-widths below the navel, not only grants full control over one's physical movements but it also affects one's mental and spiritual stability as well.

Regardless of procedure or the culture from which a given martial form originated, this act of exchanging bows is extremely important. In my opinion, it is vital to maintaining the spirit of the class because it sets the “tone” of the class and reminds us that we are about to engage in the practice of a special Eastern custom whose roots reach back to antiquity. Although not a drop of Eastern blood may course through our veins, we are links in a chain of a very special tradition and it is crucial that we keep that tradition intact so that it can be bequeathed to the next generation in its entirety.

I lived in China which, contrary to what many Westerners believe, is not “the land of bowing.” Japanese culture emphasizes bowing as a form of courtesy; Chinese culture does not. Thus, Chinese martial arts instruction generally does not begin with any kind of formal bowing. The lack of such “old-fashioned formalities” is readily apparent and it is my opinion that it has a negative impact on their training.

A formal training period concludes in much the same manner. Students line up and, in the case of most Japanese martial traditions, kneel down and the command of “mokuso!” is repeated. Students will take a few seconds to consider what they have learned and prepare themselves to re-enter their daily lives. The teacher and students then exchange bows. Students then rise and again adopt the position of “readiness” before being dismissed.

Alright”, you say. “So, this is part and parcel of a martial arts class. It's a cute ritual but what has it got to do with living in the modern world? And the answer is, “More than you suspect.” Discipline and control are two of the key elements.

In this regard, discipline has to do with proper conduct and perhaps more importantly, self-control. The two go hand in hand and they are very important ingredients if you expect to enjoy a successful, satisfying life. These virtues are easy enough to nurture when you're healthy and in good spirits but the real test lies in your ability to cultivate them when you're not feeling well. After all, anyone can maintain a fair level of self-control when they're feeling “up” but it's another story when they're angry, frightened, frustrated, discouraged, depressed, or in pain. Learning to preserve your composure under such adverse conditions requires a fair measure of discipline and is one of the objectives of your training.

The discipline and control that are developed in the training hall should be carried over into your daily life where it will affect everything that you do, from how you stand up and sit down to how you drink your morning coffee, cook up some pasta, and even how you brush your hair. Of course, it also impacts the larger, more dynamic elements of your life such as how your perform your job and the relationship you have with everyone who walks into your world; your co-workers, your boss, your spouse, your friends, family, and ultimately...yourself.

And it all started with what seemed to be a simple bow.

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