Martial Arts begins with Respect & ends with Respect



I am recently returned from the annual Daito Ryu AIkijujutsu seminar in Japan.  I have a million things to write about and have been scribbling away about lots of things. But for now just this.

This year at the seminar Kondo Sensei paused in one of the training sessions and we all sat down and he gave us a short lecture on the six tenets of Daito Ryu: Rei, Metsuke, Maai, Kuzushi, Kokyu and Zanshin.  (Roughly translated as : Respect, Eye contact, Distance, Break Balance, Breath Power and Remaining spirit). Sensei said if any one of these is missing our technique is incorrect.  It was fascinating and I could have listened to him all day. Each tenet is a subject in itself and worthy of much further investigation. But for now we focus on the first one.  Rei.

Rei translates as ‘Respect/Etiquette/Courtesy”.  It is often said that martial arts begins with respect and ends with respect.  If we don’t have Rei, it is not martial arts and it most certainly is not Budo.  Every visit to Japan Sensei teaches me in more detail, regarding all aspects of Budo.  Most of the lessons are non-verbal.   If he has to tell me, I really haven’t been paying attention or it’s a rather complex etiquette situation.

Sensei said that Rei is about saving your life.  I understand this clearly now.  But the first time I heard this several years ago I didn’t put it together.  How can being polite save your life?

In feudal Japan an error of etiquette may result in your head getting separated from your body rather rapidly.  Sounds dramatic and yes it is.  But is it any less dramatic than the rage incidents we here about in our modern world?  Folk shot at traffic lights by some lunatic just because they beeped their horn or gave someone the finger? Think about it. These are extreme cases of course but if rather than reacting to another’s rude behaviour we calmly move on our way showing nothing or apologising if appropriate, I am sure we would all get along better.

We are all brought up in our own families and have our own individual conditioning regarding manners and courtesy.  My Parents were strict regarding manners and I am Thankful to them as I realise being brought up in an environment of courtesy and respect helps you to get along with others through life.  But some people have not been so fortunate and their lack of manners or consideration for others means they can struggle sometimes.  If someone is overtly rude they may be informed, but as an adult most often not that person is left to the side.

The more I learn the more I realise just how important these things are.  Respect is a very deep value.  I am ashamed to say that it took my meeting Sensei and becoming his student to re-evaluate how I operate in the World.  A beautiful, loving upbringing with kind wonderful parents and brothers left me a little, well ok, a lot spoilt….  I could see in hindsight areas in my life where I had been unthinking, inconsiderate and worst of all arrogant.

In the Dojo we are expected to show our respect outwardly by bowing, deferring to Sempai, cleaning, seiza etc….  This Rei/Etiquette becomes quite complex in some ways to the western mind as the cultural divide is quite vast and in most cases opposite to ours.  I remember one occasion in the Dojo where we had a ‘Party’.  Of course we have to all sit in certain positions and make sure Sempai are all looked after. I remember going to pour out some sake for a newly elevated Dan grade.  I picked up the bottle to pour it. On mass the whole Dojo yelled at me!  I stopped immediately. My Japanese was not proficient enough to understand clearly what I was instructed.  I thought I had to show the label… Oh I see, I went to pour again…  Again everyone yelled at me!? This went on three times until finally I had to be shown how to pour correctly for my Sempai.  I was forgiven as I had at least tried to offer my services and well it was New Year.  Here, it is seen as great skill to carefully pour champagne or wine by holding the bottom of the bottle using only one hand. That’s how they do it in all the nice restaurants.  I have practiced this for some years to take the weight of the bottle tip carefully with one hand only rather than roughly grasping the neck of the bottle.  Well, it’s the opposite in Japan.  It is considered good etiquette to hold the bottle with both hands around the body thus showing our respect for the bottle and the person we are pouring it for. So there you are.  That’s an example of cross cultural etiquette dilemma.  Well its not a dilemma as its martial arts and its traditional Japanese martial arts so its law in the Dojo.  I have countless other transgressions around which I have been endlessly corrected on: shoe etiquette, Shomen observance, Obi, Shoji, seiza, shikko, the list goes on.  Every single movement in the Dojo must be done in a very specific way.

Which leads me to this intense Rei around the Dojo, where we must ask permission to drink, leave the room (can’t ever remember having the nerve to do that to be honest), speak, move, breath almost….  The self-control I had to learn to not speak when I had the urge.  Not only in terms of questions but in justification if I was being scolded…   Now I think about it, this is where some of the greater steps forward were made.  In the Dojo it really is martial law and I had to change my behaviour massively to avoid getting into big trouble and being what was considered discourteous.

The self-control I learnt here under the strict regime of Sensei whilst in the Dojo spilled over into my ‘normal’ life and I became more polite, considerate and aware.  The outward show of Rei is the bow.  We bow on entering the Dojo, before and after training with our partners, when corrected and when addressed in anyway.  This helps promote mindfulness and gradually a sincere humility.  With humility we are able to allow the teaching to unfold.  Without humility we cannot learn.  We bow to Sensei and to Shomen with two hands together. Not keeping our right hand ready to attack or defend.  This simultaneous two-handed bow is indicative of our implicit trust in our teacher who will never hurt us and only ever be our guide along the way.

Sensei grabbed my attention with his presence, kindness and uncompromising expectation of excellence.  I bow to him and those before us and of course to my sempai, kohai and indeed the world. I save a special bow for my parents who notwithstanding my arrogant youth and busy adulthood continue to inspire me and of course Love me.

Yes, Rei really does have a deep feeling and I can’t help but mix it with gratitude.

Sensei is always saying Budo and life are the same.  Respecting others in the Dojo and our regular life goes hand in hand.  Let’s respect ourselves, each other and refuse to demean ourselves by reacting to those more unfortunate ones who have not had the privilege to have kind parents, teachers and mentors.