Something at the very core of the budo is the idea of personal responsibility which extends to trust and honour through your word. Or, “you do what you say you’re going to do”. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that, but my goodness is it a hard concept to teach.
You see, if the concept isn‘t shared by a majority of the population, you end up with lawyers and thief-takers and prisons. You end up with conflicts and war. Think about a global shareholder-owned company moving into a pre-literate area. The company has the law on its side, and that means all the force of an armed government. The locals have their word, and the need to trust strangers at their word until proven otherwise.
Guess who wins?
Organizations (companies) cannot, by their very nature, have honour. People make a big deal about companies being “individuals” but that is of course a fiction. They are not “people” and aren’t intended to be. An incorporated company is a way for the owners to avoid responsibility, not a way to create a responsible entity. Liability for a company’s actions is limited to the company assets, it doesn’t extend to the personal assets of the owners or the employees. Or at least that’s the idea. There are some things that cannot be lawyered away but the general philosophy is one of absolving the man from responsibility within the company.
One easy way to see the difference between a company and a man is that there is no such thing as institutional memory. The people at the top change and so you need contracts. A contract is a written agreement in good faith by a certain set of people who all agree on what the language means. The next day the contract is handed over to professionals who start looking for ways to exploit the language. The organization starts to interact with the written contract and honourable men are out of the equation.
Think I’m kidding? Sit in on a union negotiation and see for yourself, as much time is spent on contract language than just about anything else, and that’s because it’s the language that sets most of the grievances for the rest of the contract term. Organizations must have contracts, but men need not. What I mean is that two men of good will, men who can trust each other, don’t necessarily need contracts. A verbal agreement and a handshake can be enough. It’s unfortunate that the world isn’t always this way.
Of course, when dealing with an organization, “get it in writing” since you are not dealing with a man. When was the last time a bank clerk reached into his own pocket to reimburse you for a mistake the bank refused to correct?
If you just guffawed at the idea a clerk should do such a thing, you demonstrate my point clearly. There is no sense any more that one member should take personal responsibility for the organization. Yet once it was common. Fraternal organizations such as the old charitable groups, or, say, a dojo still have a sense of this, but my University gym long ago converted me from a member to a client and so I expect only as much as I pay for and I give back only money. (To tell the truth, once a member always a member, I still fix little things, I pick up litter, I still sweep floors and clean, but I see little of that anywhere else in the gym).
Let’s break it down. First, budo is about personal responsibility, not group dilution of blame, not looking to your parents or the extended family of “society” to do for you, but a personal duty to act and to “own” that action. Nobody else, just you to the extent that you are able.
It’s interesting to look into the psychological literature and the self-help world and see just how much of it has to do with self-empowerment and other such terms which come down to personal responsibility.
So what’s this got to do with budo? Well who do you figure is going to defend you against that right cross coming toward your head? Your member of parliment? Your travel agent? And who is going to control the force with which you throw your opponent to the ground? The police? Your lawyer?
Budo teaches you to act, for yourself and with due care for those around you. If you do not take personal responsibility the consequences are immediate and usually painful. There is no room for excuse and justification in the dojo, no room for advocacy groups and any sort of dogma, there’s just flesh against flesh with consequences for acts.
Of course it’s up to the student to expand this small world of “self-empowered fists and feet” to the wider world at some point, but a well-run dojo can be a great incubator of honourable men.
Compare this with the attitudes held by helicopter parents and entitled kids in other schools around you. Are teachers allowed to fail your kids? To tell them that they are lazy and selfish and unaware of their job in the two-way street that is education? I got the strap for disrupting the class in elementary school and my only concern at the time was that my mother would be upset. Turns out she just laughed at me so all was good. Corporal punishment at school and a parent who doesn’t sympathize? Unthinkable in our enlightened age.
Your kid coming back from karate practice with a black eye? If it’s a well-run school with proper supervision I’m not going to be storming into anyone’s office demanding to know why the sensei didn’t jump in front of that punch for my little flower. Of course being the type to figure it’s my job to create a good environment, I’m going to be checking out that karate school before my kid gets there. Too late when he’s crippled and I’m calling a lawyer to sue someone. Money doesn’t fix the harm I caused by not paying attention in the first place does it?
Organizations may be designed to discourage personal responsibility but in the martial arts there is still a remainder of honour. I have handed sale items to folks from a seminar sales table and said “send me the payment later”. The money is usually there before the day is over. It BOTHERS martial artists not to pay their debts promptly, lest they forget to do it later. Leaving something undone gnaws away at the innerds until it’s done, because that’s a word given, that’s a promise unfilled, that’s being an honourable man and honour means something to a martial artist, honour is trust.
I have a sensei who paid expenses out of his own pocket to cover for an organization that refused to do so. He paid to cover the honour of those who had none and I still shake with fury every time I think about that.
Trust means relying on others to do as they say, as they promise. In a sparring match or during kata you have a responsibility to defend yourself and not harm your partner. Fine for you but you have to trust that your partner has the same idea of responsibility in his mind.
You trust yourself, you trust your partners. You give your partner the benefit of the doubt (trust) for as long as they live up to that trust. If they crank your wrist or break your fingers with their bokuto out of carelessness rather than a mistake, they lose your trust and perhaps lose you as a partner. You can’t get to certain levels of practice without huge trust in your partner. Trust has demonstrable value in the dojo.
Try to imagine a written contract for a jodo kata. “I promise to swing the sword such that I try to take your head off but won’t if you screw up, and in return I promise to pay you money if I don’t stop”…. No, I’ll use the old ways, and go full out with a partner who has proven over the years that he will do just that. Someone I can read, someone who I can trust.
Trust yourself, trust others. In a world without lawyers and contracts that’s the way it has to be. How did it ever change? Trial by combat comes to mind. The big man you put yourself under for protection (you know, the guy you elected to keep your taxes down) can’t figure out which of you two subjects is telling the truth, so he says “let god decide” and makes you fight. Eventually some rich dude persuades his buddy the king to let him hire a substitute to fight for him. Give it a few years and you have the legal profession (and whoever hires the best substitute fighters still wins).
We come finally to honour, that thing everyone talks about but nobody seems to understand. Taking our little walk so far we come to the conclusion that honour is just trust. You can’t buy it, you can’t inherit it, you certainly don’t deserve it, you have to earn it through your word and through the trust you have built up with those around you. You have as much honour as you have proven you are worth. You are a man of your word, you do what you say you will do.
There are reasons but no excuses:
If you say you’re going to do something you must do it. You may get sick, you may have a competing duty but you must do what you said you would do. This my father taught me as something needed to become a man. “A man does what he says”. It’s that simple. It’s a matter of trust, a matter of honour.
If you can’t do something it’s a shame. “It’s a shame”. Doesn’t sound so bad does it? Of course not, shame isn’t a problem these days, but what is a shame? It’s what is there when you don’t do what you say you will do. It’s something inside your guts that twist them and it’s not something that you should go to a psychologist or a “grief expert” to get rid of. It’s something you leave there as a lesson you never forget, you try to learn from your shame.
If you can’t do something you explain why you can’t do it, you apologize. Of course you do, only a villain would give their word and not even warn about breaking it. That way leads to lost battles and death as one of your Earls fails to show up with his men. Of course you explain when you can’t do what you said you would do, but this is not absolution. There is no absolution for breaking your word, ever.
As my Aikido sensei once told us “There are reasons but no excuses”. That blew a hole into my head and has lived there for many decades.
People ask me why I still do things even when I’m losing money… because I said I would.