Monday, November 7, 2016

Karate and Life: 20 Precepts

Much of what I write - perhaps nearly all of what I write - touches on issues of power, conflict, and peace. Across areas of human endeavor I am endlessly fascinated with how power is created and exercised, how conflict is kindled and resolved, and what paths we should take in seeking to create peace. These ideas weave in and out of my writing, both here on the blog and elsewhere.

Regular readers know that a part of my personal exploration into these issues revolves around learning and practicing traditional Asian martial arts. In this I am both a student and a teacher; I love sharing what I know with others, and I have so much more to learn myself.

Those who spend time in the traditional martial arts world soon encounter one of its central tenets: that karate, or judo, or kung fu, are not merely for fighting in a ring or practicing in a gym. The benefits of the martial arts extend throughout the student's life, and indeed should be actively sought and considered far beyond the simple practice of physical techniques. This is probably why one of my most-read blog posts of all time is titled, The Benefits of Studying the Martial Arts.

Most of what I write isn't new - far deeper thinkers have been developing these ideas for centuries. What I try to do is simply bring them to audiences that might otherwise not be familiar with the practice of Do - "way", in Japanese. Karate-do, Judo, Aiki-do - all have this common root, a call to a broader understanding and self-improvement in service to others.

One of the best synopses of this is Gichin Funakoshi's list of 20 Precepts. Funakoshi, an Okinawan master who brought karate to Japan in the early part of the 20th century, is often credited as "the father of modern karate". He wrote his Precepts as a way to pass his notion of Do along to his students, to remind them that they were engaged in a calling far higher than learning how to defend themselves in a fight.

Starting with this entry I am planning to write a series of blog posts, one for each of the 20 Precepts, with musings and thoughts on how these apply to the world around us outside the dojo (literally, "Place of the Way"). I hope these will be of interest to practitioners and non-practioners alike.

The first Precept is this:

Karate-do begins and ends with respect.

In traditional martial arts, this is summed up in the bow, or rei. Students and instructors alike "bow in" and "bow out" when they enter and leave the training space, and bow to each other at the beginning and end of each exercise. Bowing is a physical means by which we remind ourselves of the culture of respect.

Some people are uncomfortable in traditional dojos because of this formality. Where else in our lives do we have such physical, visceral symbols of respect? In some traditional churches (though fewer all the time), people bow or reverence the altar or the crucifix, but in my experience this practice isn't universal even in churches that do practice it.

The underlying principle, however, is sound - and sorely needed. When we begin and end interactions with a sign of mutual respect, it is much more difficult in between to mistreat each other. If our first thought when starting a new conversation or walking into a meeting is, "I respect the people here as fellow colleagues", our whole demeanor changes. And if things go sideways in that meeting, ending with a similar posture of respect reminds us that we're on the same team, that we're there to solve problems together, that we share much in common.

In our culture today, in 21st century America, we have almost no such signs of respect. And where we do have them, we reserve them almost exclusively for our friends, our family, for those who are inside our boundaries of comfort. "If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?"

The Christian call to love one another as God loves us can be hard, especially today. That verse is followed by an admonition: "But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return". Even if we cannot imagine ourselves going so far, can we at least take the first step of respecting our enemies?

Funakoshi put this Precept first, I suspect, because he understood that without mutual respect (even mutual love), people will use their power to hurt each other. Karate is a form of power, but we exercise power every day in our conversations and interactions with others. When we start and end with a posture of respect, in between we will work to make sure that we don't use our power to harm, but to help. When I respect others, I want to help them. That is a Way worth following.

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