Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern Karate defined 20 principles of Karate. There is much debate in the hard-core Karate fraternity about how true to the original form of Karate Funakoshi was, and others have questioned how great a figher he was when compared with the likes of Kano (founder of Judo) or Ueshiba (founder of Aikido). However, whatever we think of Funakoshi's physical prowess, I consider him a true Warrior because of his commitment to his Way - his Do; and because he was a great philospher and teacher. He was a Confucian scholar and, as was the case with many of the great martial teachers (including Kano and Ueshiba) he sought to teach his students a harmonious and compassionate way of life, not just a physical skill.
I wanted to 'unpack' the 20 principles of Karate so that they can be applied to the whole of life and not just to Karate. I will do this 1 at a time and will drop them into this blog over the coming weeks and months. Here is the first:
Karate Begins and ends with Rei
Rei is the word used to denote the formal Japanese bow that you will see a lot in traditional Dojo's (Dojo is the name for a training hall and means 'place of the Way'). Rei also means respect. Karate classes literally begin and end with a bow, as do all engagements with an opponent, but what I think we are being reminded of here is more relating to the symbolic aspect of this practice than the literal. The constant bowing in martial arts classes can be seen as just cultural garnish, keeping the art 'Japanese flavoured.' However, I see it as a vital part of our practice. Bowing is a practice of humility. We are bodily offering deep respect and gratitude to whoever and whatever we are bowing to. I say whatever, because traditionally the Dojo would have had a shinto shrine which would have been the first and the last thing we would bow to. This shrine was, amongst other things, the home of the spirit of the land and building it was in. As such, when we bow to this shrine, we are offering our respects to the place we are training in, and in my mind, this also means the land itself. Indeed, with Shinto being a religion which recognises many spirits of nature, I think that this respect would traditionally have extended out to the land and the natural surroundings. This reminder of respect for our environment is perhaps more important now than ever. With the damage that has been done and continues to be done to the natural world, we must bring this awareness to every day of our lives if we are going to leave an inhabitable world for our children and their children.
The other bow that comes at the beginning and end of the class is to the sensei. They are the teacher but with some subtle differences. Sensei means 'one who has gone before' so it is someone who has walked the path we are setting our feet on so they can help us find our way safely and can set the pace so that we are constantly challenged. Of course it is important to respect our teachers, but also, my feeling is that when we bow to the outward sensei, we also have the opportunity to bow to our inner sensei. There is a part of us which is naturally connected to a deep wisdom and it is this part of ourselves that makes our learning possible as much as any external teacher or guide. There is also the opportunity to remind ourselves to be grateful for all our teachers, even the people and events in our lives which are difficult. It is a reminder that all experience has something to teach us.
So when we bow, when we rei, we are physically reminding ourselves of our gratitude for the beauty of the world around us; the challenge and learning offered by all of our opponents in life (internal and external); the humbling wisdom which lies in the teaching we receive from others and ourselves; and we are reminding ourselves to bring the quality of respect to every moment. Gratitude, humility, respect: Karate-do begins and ends in rei.
You don't need to go to a Karate class to practice Rei. If you have a meditation practcie you can begin that and end it with a bow of some kind and bring this awareness to your practice. If you don't have a practice already then you could take up bowing as a practice. It only takes a few moments and it is a wonderful way of bodily invoking these qualities of gratitude, humility and respect. So, maybe when you first get up in the morning, or when you enter and leave your house or living room you could take a moment to centre yourself and make a really conscious bow. Remember, you are bowing to the world, your immediate environment, yourself as you are, the 'master' that lives within you, and all those opponents you have faced and will face who are teachers for you if only you can discern the lesson.