Monday, January 9, 2017

Practice In Japan

Yoshunkan Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016

 Practice in Japan has a different feel from training in the U.S.. In Japan, everyone is quietly intent on the training. There is no chatter, and not even much in the way of questions to Sensei about how things should be done. Keiko proceed with a smooth regularity. Everyone except the newest students knows how practice in their dojo operates, and they all work to make sure everything goes smoothly. This is not to say that everyone is already perfect - far from it. Everyone in the dojo is there to learn and train hard. Training time lacks the social element that is often present in dojo outside Japan. There is no extraneous conversation while training is going on. Before and after practice? Of course. During breaks? Sure. While actual practice is going on? Not at all.

It’s not that anyone is yelling or enforcing silence. Everyone is there for a reason and a purpose, and during practice they focus on it. No one has to tell them to focus. It’s not like the pseudo-military atmosphere I’ve seen in some dojo outside Japan, with the instructor acting as a drill sergeant, yelling at anyone who isn’t exactly in line. In most Japanese dojo, the discipline comes from within the students themselves, not from the teachers. I would be mortified if I were to be so out of line that anyone, fellow student or the teacher, felt a need to say something to me about my behavior.

Everyone who comes into the dojo has to learn the dojo routine, but no one is harassed while they are learning. New students are as quiet as senior students, maybe quieter, since they don’t want to risk offending anyone. Beginners are busy trying to learn the dojo routines and etiquette, so they don’t have much time to say anything.  Senior students are comfortable and at home in the dojo, so they they don’t need to say much.

Practice moves along at a rapid clip. Dojo in America often have a lot of chatting and talking among students, or at the other end, a rigidly enforced atmosphere of silence. Traditional dojo in Japan are quiet and focused, but lack the authoritarian feel of many large, modern dojo. You don’t see a lot of external discipline. Students are expected to know how to behave politely while they figure out the dojo customs. Teachers expect to be able to be heard and lead class without yelling.

For example, Iseki Sensei leads the jodo class, and everyone takes turn in the counting of technique repetitions while we’re working through the kihon (fundamentals) at the beginning of class. Sensei speaks loudly enough to be heard by everyone in the dojo, and no louder.

Kazuo Iseki Sensei. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016

Once we finish with the kihon, Sensei splits us into senior and junior members so the seniors can act as partners for the junior students. This is something I don’t see enough of in modern dojo. The seniors use their understanding of timing, spacing and control to help the juniors get the most out of their technique and kata practice. The senior adjusts her speed and intensity to a level where the junior can practice and learn. The senior doesn’t spend much time talking to the junior; they are both focused on the training. If significant corrections need to be made the senior will make a brief comment, but that’s all that’s needed.

The teacher lets the students practice without a lot of interruption. Rarely will the whole class be stopped to make a point. The teacher will correct individual issues individually, and the rest of the class will wait for the pair being corrected to get back on track, or continue working on kata if the correction is taking more time than usual. Working with the juniors is not a sacrifice for the senior students. They are also working on the spacing, timing, and control for the tachi side.

Practice gets more interesting when Sensei has the junior members of the dojo sit down to watch while the seniors work together. This practice is intense, with the seniors working at the edge of their skill. The juniors don’t chatter while watching. They’ve learned well how to quietly observe somewhere else. They don’t have to learn that here. The seniors will all be working on different parts of the curriculum, as directed by Sensei. Sometimes Sensei will step in and act as the partner so the student can focus her  practice on a particular point. 

Traditional Japanese Swordsmanship

Through all of this the only time Sensei will yell is when he calls for a break. Most corrections are made at a conversational tone by Sensei. If one senior is helping another, the corrections are usually made at a whisper so as to not disturb anyone else’s training. The whole atmosphere is one of intensity and focus on learning. Even the juniors sitting at the side are quiet and focused on picking up as much as they can from watching the seniors practice. There is plenty to learn that way about footwork, timing, rhythm, and all the other details of the art. There is room for smiles and quiet laughter at mistakes and accidents.  Then it’s back to practice.

Talking would disturb everyone else in the dojo, and the last thing anyone in Japan wants to do is bother someone else. This doesn’t mean the dojo isn’t friendly and social, because all of the traditional dojo I’ve been in have been friendly and social. The students just recognize clear distinctions between training time and social time. The “friendly” is always there. People are genuinely concerned about their partners’ well-being. When training is over, people are very social. There are questions about how people are doing, jokes and laughter.  Often there is time for a drink together after training.

That’s after training. During training everyone trains. No one chatters or talks other than necessary. They just train. The focus is quite different from dojo I’ve been to elsewhere. Everyone shares the focus.  This is something I need to bring to the dojo where I train outside Japan.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Forging The Spirit

Tamahagane, traditional steel, is filled with impurities and requires repeated heating and hammering just to get the impurities out. Only after that can you start shaping a sword.

精神 - mind, soul, heart, spirit, intention
誠心 - sincerity
清心 - “bright, clear” & “mind”
正心 - correct mind, righteous mind

These are just some of the 14 meanings that come up when I type in “seishin” ”せいしん” into the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary. Japanese is a wonderful language. It’s possible to write the word phonetically and thereby imply any or all of the above, or sometimes meanings diametrically opposed to the above meanings. 成心 is also pronounced “seishin” but means prejudice. This can make Japanese a tricky language to say things in; profound but filled with pitfalls.

I’m thinking about seishin because I was visiting with a friend and discussing all things budo over a pint in a Dublin pub. He was wondering how to get from the mindset of destroying one’s opponents to a more wholesome attitude; one that doesn’t require destroying his opponents to achieve goals and mastery.

There are lots of different mindsets that we can take in budo. When we start though, we almost have no choice but to be concerned with winning, with dominating and destroying teki, our opponent. As a beginner in judo, I had to really focus on attacking my training partners and throwing them down. If I didn’t, I was so quickly dominated and thrown down myself that I couldn’t learn anything from the practice.

There are many ideas about states of mind. Fudoshin and mushin are great to talk about, but how on earth does one get from being a beginner who is just trying to not get crushed to becoming, first,  somewhat technically proficient, and then all the way to a point where you are relaxed and acting without prior intent, just moving in harmony with the situation as it develops?

The koryu bugei seem to offer the most time-tested path to these special mental states. The journey is not exciting. Like most practices undertaken to develop the mind/spirit, a lot of effort has to be put into just keeping up the practice.  It’s not generally exciting, especially in the early stages and late stages.

Japanese has long used the phrase seishin tanren to talk about the real nature of training, budo training in particular. “”Tanren” is 鍛錬 and means “forging”. Forging is not exciting work, whether it is making swords or martial artists. In Japan it means repeatedly hammering and folding the steel for the blade until all the impurities have been beaten out of it.  

The Japanese equate budo training with this kind of forging. Seishin tanren or “spiritual forging” is a good way to describe koryu budo training.  It can be harsh, repetitive and boring, but if you don’t drive out the impurities first, the final product will break easily.

Fine Martial Arts Equipment, Books and Videos

Koryu budo training is built around kata practice rather than sparring.  Sparring is fun and exciting, but it doesn’t build the skills or the mind in the ways necessary for spiritual training.  Look at how a boxer or an Olympic judoka or an MMA fighter trains.  They mostly train kata as well. Oh, I know they don’t call what they do “kata,” but that’s what training drills are. Kata are training drills, pattern practice for techniques, skills and mindset.

You can’t effectively spar until you’ve attained a certain level of technical and mental skill, and that is nearly impossible to get from sparring alone. There has to be a reason that paired kata training remained the dominant training methodology in koryu budo from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The reason is that paired training drills, pattern practice, kata, or whatever you want to call them, are the best effective way of mastering physical technique and developing a quality mental state.  

Beginners are overwhelmed by all the details of learning a new art. The best they can do is pick a couple of points and focus on them. As a beginner, one has to focus intently just to approximate what a journeyman practitioner does without thinking. This is the first step on the path to the mental states of mushin and fudoshin. It’s only when a beginner has advanced far enough that they don’t have to focus on each step of a given movement that they can begin working on the rest of the staircase.

Partnered kata practice gives a student a controlled environment in which to to experiment and develop. The teacher can adjust the intensity of the regimen to the student’s technical level so they get the most from training.  Early on this might mean walking through the kata slowly and without any pressure.  As the student becomes proficient at performing the outer shape of the kata, the teacher can increase the pressure, go faster, attack more strongly, and then add new kata that emphasize different lessons about timing, spacing or technical application.

Over thousands of repetitions the student polishes her fundamental techniques and learns to move without focusing on the details of movement. Now the teacher can begin to vary not just the intensity but also the timing of the kata. One potential danger of partnered kata training is that it may become nothing more than a choreographed dance wherein you know how and when your partner will move or attack. This can lead to empty forms and stagnating mental development.  The teacher’s responsibility is to continuously manipulate the timing and spacing so no two repetitions of the kata are identical. It is at this point that  mental development really begins for the student.

At first a student reaching this level may try to anticipate her partner’s movement.  She knows what her partner is supposed to do next in the kata, and she responds to what her partner is supposed to do. The thing about training in koryu budo is that your partner is teaching you, and koryu budo teachers can be harsh. If my student anticipates my action and moves first, I’m going to attack the opening she gives me rather than do what the kata says I should. One of the lessons of budo is to act in accord with that is suitable for the situation, not just do what the script calls for. If she anticipates my movement, she’s already left the kata and I’m free to attack however I wish.

This is when students really start developing their minds, forging their seishin. It’s also when I, as a student,  was most likely to come home from practice with whacked knuckles and bruised wrists. At this stage, I was  still thinking about when to move and how fast to move. This meant I was often moving too late to get out of the way of the attack. When you’re late, sometimes sensei will let the strike land so you learn how vulnerable you are.

The kata hasn’t changed, but the timing and intensity have. As the student gets more comfortable with the mechanics of the kata, she learns to watch and not move until the right moment, neither too early nor too late. Students who want to dominate and control everything in order to crush their opponent are eager to move and easily drawn into moving before it is safe to do so. Students who are thinking too much will wait to long and get whacked. Through forging,  hammering and folding, through countless repetitions of the kata, the teacher drives out excess thought that gets in the way of quick, clean movement. The tendency to anticipate your partner, thereby creating gaping openings, is slowly forced to the surface of the mind until it is sloughed off like slag being hammered out of piece of tamahagane steel.

In my case, I was so prepared to defend against an attack that I knew was coming that I was often incapable of waiting until it actually happened.Alternatively, whenever I became too anxious to move, like a spring that was overloaded with tension, my teachers would hesitate a moment and draw me into moving. It’s the teacher’s job to provide learning experiences, to change the timing just a little, or maybe a lot.  As I learned to quiet my mind and stopped trying to outguess my partner, I learned to see what teki was really doing.

The student keeps up the repetitions, working the impurities out of her mind. One day it will happen. She’s doing a kata at a high intensity level without thinking about it, without reacting. She’ll be calm and relaxed and act in accord with her partner’s speed and timing. It will be beautiful. The next repetition will be disastrous. She will consciously try to duplicate the previous kata and utterly fail. My experience was much the same..

Fudoshin and mushin are states of mind that involve getting out of your own way. The irony in this is that if you are trying to get your mind out of the situation, your mind is already actively in it. Mushin is all about just being there and not forcing your conceptions on the situation. But - If actively trying to quiet your mind is guaranteed to not get you where you want to be, how do you get there?

You could try breathing through your eyelids.

In Bull Durham, Annie tells LaLoosh to “breath through your eyelids.”  It’s a great tactic. He’s been overthinking everything he does, and as a result can’t pitch well. His mind is wound up and in the way. He can’t do anything right. By distracting his mind with the impossible, Annie frees the skills he’s acquired to act smoothly and naturally. With koryu budo, we don’t tell students to breathe through their eyelids. We forge their minds in the furnace of paired kata practice (and if you don’t think paired kata practice is a furnace, let me introduce you to a couple of people).

Good teachers and training partners gradually turn up the heat. When a student starts, she is busy worrying about the mechanics of the kata. Over time, the teacher pushes a little more and a little more until she’s not worrying about the mechanics. Now perhaps she’s worrying about not getting hit. With enough hammering in the right places at the right moments, fear of getting hit is also driven out of her mind.

Over time, the repetition and gradually increasing intensity levels hammer out other mental impurities. Too much intention is a common stumbling block.Having an attitude that you are going to dominate and destroy your partner is problematic, whether you are doing kata or sparring. It creates unnecessary intent, which is a stumbling block on the path to mushin. With enough practice, enough forging, the student will no longer need to convince herself that she will dominate and control.  She becomes confident that she can handle what’s out there, and doesn’t need intent. Now she’s ready to just relax and take whatever her partner has to throw at her, without any particular intent.

Now she’ll begin to touch mushin and fudoshin. It will be a rare thing at first, a happy accident that can’t be repeated intentionally. With more practice, this student will learn to let go of intentions and expectations. She’ll be able to take a breath in and let her worries, fears and mental noise go out with the exhalation. Mushin will happen more often now and the worries, fears and mental noise will grow weaker and quieter, until they are almost gone.

At this point she’s not a student anymore. She’s a senior helping other students travel the path. I doubt anyone ever reaches a perfect state where they maintain fudoshin and mushin 100% of the time, but the great teachers get so close that the rest of us never notice the lapses.  Seishin tanren is all about forging the mind. It’s not a quick or easy process. Just as forging a sword requires hundreds of repetitions through the process of heating and hammering to get rid of the impurities found in tamahagane steel, and then further heating and hammering to shape the blade, the raw ore of a student is heated and hammered in the furnace of kata practice until mental impurities have been forged out of her and she is a calm, relaxed budoka. Seishin tanren is simple. It’s definitely not easy.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Budo and Control

I have this crazy idea that budo is not about controlling the world.  It's not about imposing our will on the world.  It's not about becoming powerful. It's about learning to work with the world as it is. It's about recognizing our inherent weaknesses. It’s about being able to deal with whatever happens calmly, simply and without losing our balance.

Many people seem to think the world can and should be controlled.  One of the lessons of budo is that the only thing we can have any control of is ourselves.  The world is bigger and more complicated than our imaginations can hold all at once. The connections, complexities and consequences of any action or occurrence are more numerous than we can envision.  The danger is fooling ourselves into believing we can control anything beyond ourselves.  

Budo training grants power, pure physical power. If we aren’t careful, we can delude ourselves into believing that the power that comes with the study of budo empowers us to control the world around us. With practice, budo teaches techniques and strategies for fighting, restraining and destroying others. It doesn’t teach how to control the world. It doesn’t really teach how to control anyone except ourselves.

Other people, animals, nature, the entire universe are beyond our control. Even with the most effective restraining techniques we can’t control someone else. A wrist lock or an armbar can only restrain someone temporarily. Even then, someone who doesn’t mind damaging himself can break through. A choke can knock someone unconscious but it doesn’t control them. A strike or throw can break bones and destroy soft tissue, but it doesn’t control anyone. What we can control is ourselves.

Budo asks the fundamental questions about what is important and what isn’t. We each have to answer those questions before we can begin to apply budo lessons well. Once we learn some budo techniques we have to answer for ourselves “What is important enough to hurt someone else over?” Pride? Ego? Love? Anger? Once we have power, we have the responsibility to learn when and how it can be best used. Budo, like any power, used without wisdom, can do more harm to the wielder than to anyone else.

Used on others the power of budo is destructive, allowing us to stop, to hurt, to damage and destroy. Used on ourselves the effects of budo can be positive and creative. That big question, “What is important enough to hurt someone else over?” gets shortened to “What is important?” This question is powerful because if we don’t know what is important, we can be manipulated and influenced over things of no value.

We can’t begin to stay calm and balanced until we know what is important. The thing that surprises me is how short the list of really important things is for me. I treasure people and nature. I value art and beauty. I value knowledge. All of those things are important enough for me to act to protect. Knowing what is important is the first step in controlling yourself. Without it you can be goaded into anger or foolish acts as easily as a child in the schoolyard. Asking what’s important to us is a critical step towards learning to stay calm, in control and balanced.

We practice budo and we learn to distinguish real threats from insubstantial ones, bluster from physical danger. Is what’s happening a real danger? Is it a bluff, a bird puffing up its feathers to look bigger than it really is, or a gorilla making dominance displays before smashing a rival?  Self control, self-discipline and wise action demand that we be able to distinguish between these.

Budo doesn’t just teach a bunch of techniques. Critical is learning to assess capability and range. People do a lot of posturing in the office, but they almost never do anything actually violent. They will try to intimidate by standing uncomfortably close or leaning over someone, but they’re not going to risk their livelihood and career by doing anything. They’ll imply the physical threat. They want you to react unconsciously to the threat.

If you are reacting unconsciously to people, you’re not in control of yourself and you are easily knocked off balance by others. Applied budo is not the art of harming other people, but the art of mastering yourself. You train hard. You go to the dojo and practice taking ukemi so you can be thrown around without getting hurt. Along the way you discover something about what actually hurts and what is just discomfort and annoyance. You learn to avoid injury and choose when to let discomfort bother you and when to ignore it.

Then we start to learn about spacing, at what range you’re vulnerable and where you’re safe. You learn to control the spacing. You can’t control someone else, but you can control their relationship to you so they can’t get close enough to endanger you. You practice attacking and being attacked so you understand the nuances of spacing down to a few centimeters. You learn to choose your action based on understanding what’s important and what’s a real danger.

Then, as you spend more time studying budo, you start applying the same lessons and principles to dealing with things that don’t involve physical danger and the risk of getting hurt. Is that snide remark really a threat to me, or just bluster? Should I take offense and counterattack, or do I practice ukemi with a self-deprecating agreement? We’re social beings and social attacks can be just as painful as physical attacks. Those budo lesson questions and lessons about what’s important and recognizing the difference between a genuine threat and puffed up bluster apply just as well in the office.

Ukemi isn’t just about how to fall down. It’s how you receive an attack. The ukemi for receiving attacks in a social setting are just as important as the ones for when you’re thrown. They might be more important, since social attacks are more common, and if you’re social ukemi is good it can de-escalate an otherwise unpleasant situation. It’s important that you be in control enough that you can choose your action rather than just reacting.

We can’t control the world. We can’t control other people. The only thing we can control is ourselves. We don’t decide how people will act or how they will react. Budo teaches us to relax, breathe and deal with things as they are, knowing the difference between what’s important and what isn’t. Budo happens when we know what’s important and choose our actions based on that knowledge rather than letting the world write a script for us.

Monday, October 3, 2016

”The" Way, Ways, and our Assumptions

The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way;
The names that can be named are not unvarying names.
It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang;
The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind.
Truly, “Only he that rids himself forever of desire can see the Secret Essences”;
He that has never rid himself of desire can see only the Outcomes.
These two things issued from the same mould, but nevertheless are different in name.
This “same mould” we can but call the Mystery, Or rather the “Darker than any Mystery”,
The Doorway whence issued all Secret Essences.
                        Arthur Waley (1)


The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.

The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.

Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.

These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery -
The gateway of the manifold secrets.
                D. C. Lau  (2)

These are just two of the many translations of the Dao De Ching that have been done in English. No one translation will ever be definitive. Some are much better than others, but I don’t think any of them is completely wrong. Each carries something thing of original Chinese, but each also carries much that comes from the assumptions and understandings of the person doing the translation, and the language into which it is translated.

Languages and cultures are so deeply intertwined I doubt it’s possible to separate them. Cultural assumptions influence how language is used. Linguistic assumptions and rules frame how culture is viewed. What are our cultural and linguistic assumptions that might contribute to how we think about and conceive the budo we practice?  

We assume this or that, that things are clearly black or white. Japanese culture assumes that instead of “either/or”, things can be “both/and”  Dichotomies make things simple to understand, but that simple understanding masks the interconnected reality of things that can be both this AND that at the same time.

English imposes certain frameworks that we don’t notice until they are removed by learning a language that doesn’t use the same frames. Two examples can immediately impact how we think about the above passage from the Dao De Ching.

Articles (“the”, “a”) mean that for countable objects we have to immediately decide if something is unique, and use “the” to denote this, or just one out of many, and use “a” to denote that.  What if you read the above translations without the articles? Does that change the feeling? For some reason, English speakers long ago decided that singular occurrences of things had to be distinguished from multiple occurrences. When Chinese and Japanese developed, the question of one versus many wasn’t an issue.

So what happens if we change the all the instances where nouns are translated as singular above to plural?  Chinese doesn’t divide objects into singular or plural, thereby forcing the verb to adjust to these categories. Things don’t have to be exclusively “the”.  There is an old saying that there are many paths up the mountain, but they all lead to the same place. What happens if we accept the ambiguity of not clarifying singular or plural?

It’s amazing that so many questions can be raised; so many possibilities, so many things can be changed just by recognizing a couple of the assumptions we weren’t aware we were making.  The language we speak provides a theoretical framework for understanding the world. We absorb that framework as we absorb the language, when we are small children. We don’t question the framework that our mother tongue provides until we start learning a language that uses a different framework.

Learning budo means stepping into a world dominated by a completely different framework, one that comes out of 1000 years of Japanese culture and language. Like American culture though, it has roots that go far deeper and draw on ideas that are far older than Japan. The United States looks to ancient Greece and Rome for the origin of ideas about citizenship, democracy and what it means to be a member of society.

Japan has been drawing upon the wealth of more than 3,000 years of Chinese thought. The works of Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu and Yang Hsiung, as well as all manner of Buddhist thought have influenced Japanese culture, language and philosophy since perhaps the 4th century C.E.  Japan has a very different culture from that of China, so just as English speakers impose our unconscious frameworks on Chinese translations, the Japanese have looked at Chinese writings through their own framework. Over the centuries Japanese culture and language have worked their magic and created wonderful new ideas and ways of understanding things.

One wonderful set of ideas and concepts comes to us in the forms of budo.  What preconceptions and frameworks do we bring to budo practice from our language and culture? One of the first examples that leaps to mind is mind, or better, 心 kokoro. This is also the character read as shin in mushin 無心, zanshin 残心, and fudoshin 不動心.

We all know that mushin is no mind, and that zanshin means remaining mind and fudoshin means immovable mind.  The problem is that they do mean those things. We have a tendency to learn those meanings and then stop because we think we’ve got it. Kokoro is more complex than just meaning what English speakers think of as “mind.”

In English, the mind is thought of as the seat of reason and intellect. It’s sheared off from the emotions, which are conceptualized as residing in the heart. If you think about it, this is kind of strange, since we now know that emotions and reason are all tied up together in the brain. In Japanese, they have always conceived of reason and emotions together.  They call it kokoro 心.

Most translators (including me sometimes) just go with translating 心 as mind. It takes extra effort to explain that it really means what is both heart and mind in English. Then you have to come up with a way to express that more complex meaning because English doesn’t have a word for it. What happens if we change the words we use to translate these?

        Mushin   -   no mind    
mushin   -  no heart     
mushin  -   no emotions
        Zanshin  -  remaining mind
        Zanshin  -  remaining heart
Zanshin  -  remaining emotions
Fudoshin - Immovable mind
Fudoshin - Immovable heart
Fudoshin - Immovable emotions

The meanings become more nuanced, more complex. It makes sense that budo deals with the emotions as much as the intellect.  Making someone angry so they’ll make mistakes in the heat of emotion is a tactic as old as humanity. All that talk about the mushin, zanshin, fudoshin  and similar terms addresses the emotional just as much as the rational. It’s not enough to quiet your thoughts if your emotions are running riot. It doesn’t matter if your rational mind is solid and steady as the foundation of a house if your emotions can be tossed about like a dry leaf in the breeze.

One instance where my experience as an independent-minded, independence-obsessed American teenager really got in the way of understanding what was going on was the area of reigi or etiquette. This is a huge topic in Japanese culture, so naturally it is of great importance in Japanese arts like budo.

Americans spent a lot of blood in fights to make sure everyone was equal before the law, and that no one earned special treatment simply by virtue of who their parents were. We work hard to make it clear that everyone is equal. I call all the Americans I work with, from the kid just hired to empty trash cans to the general manager, by their first names.  This was the expectation when I first walked into a dojo.

Japanese people also hold everyone equal before the law, but that’s where concern with equality ends. Culturally, Japan is obsessed with the nuances that make us different. Things like age, who your teacher is, and how long you’ve been training, in addition to what rank you may hold, are all of vital interest in figuring out relative social position. English speakers are worried about whether we’re dealing with one or many. Japanese speakers can’t even conjugate a verb until they know what their conversation partner’s relative social status is.

Verbs are literally conjugated differently whether you are talking to someone of lower status (teacher to student for example), equal status (students or teachers of the same level) or higher status (student to teacher). With social status that intrinsic to the way people think, etiquette quickly becomes a major issue. Using the wrong verb form is one of the classic ways to insult someone in Japanese. Fights can be caused by the inadvertent use of the wrong verb form. The intentional use of the wrong verb form does start fights.

One of the many uses of etiquette is to communicate information about relative social position and understanding. If you don’t know the basic etiquette, it’s clear that don’t know anything else about the art either. Without the etiquette you can be certain you’ll offend someone. I got treated with the indulgence of a small child when I first went to Japan, and thank goodness for that. Small children and big foreigners aren’t expected to know how to behave, but both are expected to pay attention and learn.

I saw many non-Japanese who were satisfied with the social assumptions they arrived with and didn’t make any real effort to learn new ways of thinking about social relationships. They didn’t go very far in Japan. I didn’t either until I gave up the ideas about social relationships that I assumed were natural and best. Once I stopped clinging to what I knew, and accepted the fact that Japanese ideas and assumptions about social relationships and etiquette are just as natural to them as the ones I grew up with were to me, I started to make progress in being part of Japanese society.

It took longer than I care to admit for me to realize that trying to force what my assumptions of what was natural only caused friction and got me gently excluded from social occasions  that I might mess up.. It was only when I stopped asking why people couldn’t see the good sense of my way, and just asked myself “What is their way?” that I began to get any degree of acceptance and respect. It seems obvious from this distance, but when I was in the midst of it, letting go of my own assumptions was tough

We have to make assumptions to get started in budo. If we don’t make any linguistic and cultural assumptions we can’t take the first step on the journey.  We need a framework in which to place what we learn and to link our budo to the rest of our lives. Those assumptions aren’t bad. They’re only bad if we don’t go back and reconsider them as our understanding deepens. We have to be ready to knock a support out of our framework from time to time when we discover it’s interfering with our growth and replace it with a new structure that better accommodates the growing understanding. 

 1.  The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought, Allen & Unwin, London, 1934.

2. Tao Te Ching Penguin Books, 1963