Every so often, quite often actually, I hear “budo begins and ends with etiquette”. Since we bow in and bow out of every single practice, as well as bowing to the room each way through the door, I have always wondered why we get told this. We spend hours being taught exactly how to bow and we can even fail an exam for doing it wrong. As a matter of fact, in the kendo federation, wrong etiquette is almost the only way you can fail your first national exam, being dressed incorrectly being another. Oh, and don’t drop your sword.
So what is it that we’re being told when we’re reminded about etiquette? Let’s explore a bit.
What are we bowing to?
Thats a good question and the answer has had some relevance over the years. Several times we’ve had students come into class and say that they can’t bow because of religious reasons. Presumably they can bow to nobody but their gods, and my personal response is “fine, don’t bow” (I don’t really have the inclination to argue religion any more). In most cases they wander back out of class and in some they have started bowing, presumably because of a combination of peer pressure and rationalizing that if there’s no intention to worship the person (invisible or not) in front, bending over from the waist is just bending over from the waist.
So are we bowing to the gods of budo? There are such but I’m dinged if I know their names. I’m a lot more familiar with Ares than Hachiman, and that’s just because Ares had a recurring role in Xena.
I certainly don’t bow to gods when I’m bowing in, except maybe to Anoia the goddess of things that get stuck in drawers. I don’t want my sword getting stuck in my scabbard since, like a knife in a drawer, it tends to jump out and cut you if you yank at it. Oh and constantly to he who won’t be named, may he eat me first.
We may be bowing to the teacher. I have no problem with that, showing a bit of respect to the guy who is showing me how to do this stuff is a good idea I figure. I’m not paying him, so why not show my appreciation in that way. (Nobody I have learned from was ever a professional teacher or I’d have happily both paid and bowed). When it’s me up front teaching we usually don’t bow at me. I respect my students but I bow to them when I bow to my sword. I started teaching way too soon to have them bow at me separately, it was embarassing and now if we do it, it’s for their own good so that they know to do it when they’re somewhere else. I still bow to them when I bow to my sword. In a separate bow to me they are bowing to everyone who taught me, and so am I.
That doesn’t explain the other bows, to the room on the way in, to the sword and the head of the room. When in doubt, bow to it. My iaido sensei explained to me that since I wasn’t Japanese I wasn’t bowing to any shinto gods at the head of the room, so it’s a bow to the high place in the room. Nobody is there for me but it’s a nice reminder of a place to keep in mind, an anchor as I move around doing the various kata.
I bow to the sword in an appeal not to bite me. I bow to my table saw and my band saw every time I use them… not physically but in my head as in “please let me walk away from you with ten fingers today”. You think I’m kidding? Respect your tools, especially the ones that can kill you. Ritual is important, drop the bucket on the backhoe when you get out, check the kickback clutch on the chainsaw, stick the screwdriver in the socket to trip the breaker before you rewire it. Mindful ritual is good, mindless habit is not quite as good but better than thoughtless action.
So that’s the high point in the room (the gods) the teacher and the sword. The room? Well the usual explanation is that it converts the room into a dojo, a place of worship. I’m good with that, or if not, how about “thanks to the administration for allowing me a warm place to practice so I don’t have to be out in the woods”. Anybody who practices in a public space knows you have to kowtow for it. I said the woods because I can’t imagine you would be able to swing a sword in a public park any more… not even with the weird skirts that used to identify you as a harmless geek. Now there are people who are paid to re-imagine you as tour’rists. No, the deep woods it is, and change location often so as not to alarm the local dog-walkers.
What do we bow to? How about the art itself, the teachers in your lineage (ancestor worship) who have kept the thing alive and allowed it to pass along to you?
Where do you bow from?
As a teacher do you return the bow of your students from a position of authority and power, or do you bow to them from humility as a request to forgive any mistakes you pass along? Are you teaching or learning together? Are you doing them a favour by letting them know what you know or are they your legacy to the future, your only shot at immortality? You should think about that and decide which.
Students sit on the low side of the dojo, they sit in heirarchical order, they are already in a place of humility, of course they are bowing from humility, we don’t need to worry about that. Do we?
Do I say “budo begins and ends with etiquette”? I may have, when looking at beginners, I may have even said it un-ironically but certainly never seriously to my experienced students. The only meaning they would draw from it was that I thought they were disrespecting me and for my own ego I would never admit I know that.
If your teacher says it to you, check back in your memory, have you disrespected him? Something you haven’t done? Are you not humble enough? Are your dues paid for the month and did you sweep the floor? Maybe it’s just a comment to the beginners but it’s always best to check.