There are times when I, as the senior member and de facto teacher of my club, get pretty frustrated with my small cadre of students. Why can’t they pick up the techniques faster? Why can’t they progress faster so I can work with them on more advanced methods? Why don’t they take on more responsibility for their self-learning? If any of you have ever taught, you will recognize the same frustrations if you have high expectations of your students.
On the other hand, there are days where the students surprise me with their enthusiasm and willingness to push beyond their comfort zone. If not for them, I would be training all by myself, with no one to work out with. If not for them, I wouldn’t have the tuition money that helps to pay for the rental space. For this, and for other things, if you are a teacher you should be grateful. If you are a fellow student, you should be also grateful for other students as well, because without them you wouldn’t have training partners to help you improve yourself.
That gratefulness is expressed best in a traditional dojo with the tagai no rei. It is usually enunciated as something like, “Otagai ni rei!”; this basically means the formal thanks (rei) you give to your peers (tagai; the O- is an honorific), usually at the end of the class. There may also be thanks given to one’s teacher(s); a senior student might lead off the bow by saying, “Sensei ni rei,” or “Give thanks to your teacher.”
In both cases, you are thanking a fellow human being for the opportunity to train and learn. This is different from the bow at the beginning and end of class in a dojo that pays thanks to an ancestor/founder/guardian deity/spirit of the system, as embodied in the little altar at the front, or kamiza of the dojo.
There are, in Japanese budo, variations. If you are training in a modern budo, such as judo or karatedo, there may not be a little Shinto shrine at the front. Modern budo systems attempted to go past family or location deities or specific religiosity and deliberately tried to be inclusive national organizations (and later, international organizations). Therefore, you may simply see a picture of the founder up front (such as Kano Jigoro for Kodokan judo, or Ueshiba Morihei for aikido), or in the case of a lot of kendo dojo here, an American flag paired with a Japanese flag, and/or a Hawaii state flag, and bowing to the flags encourage good citizenship, civic pride and respect.
A lot of budo classes are held in rec centers or rented halls, even in Japan. The multipurpose rooms may be used for volleyball practice afterwards, or ballroom dancing, so there may not even be those simple accoutrements of a flag or picture of a founder. It can’t be helped. But that’s why you’re bowing to the front of the dojo even though all that may be there may be a set of mirrors and some peeling paint off the wall. You are repeating a ritual that would be, in a properly laid out private dojo, paying respect to the ancestors/founders/deities of your ryu, or style. There’s no religion there. You’re just showing respect, like doffing your baseball cap when entering a church or high school classroom.
Even when I was doing jo (staff) in a public park, we would pay such respect by facing north and bowing to the tree line in substitution for a proper kamiza.
In one of the kobudo (older martial arts) systems I study, the bow to our ryu’s deities is rather elaborate compared to the usual bow-your-head-to-the-mat type usual bow. It involves clapping ones’ hands and several bows. This is derived from Shinto ritual, and is appropriate since our guardian deity is a Shinto presence at Atago Shrine (which, curiously, according to syncretic Shinto/Buddhist beliefs, is also a localized Japanese embodiment of the Buddhist deity Marishiten, (in India: Marici), so everybody is happy, Buddhists and Shintoists. I’m waiting for the day when some enterprising Buddhist will try to correlate such deities with Catholic saints and start selling St. Christopher medals at someplace like Yasaka Shrine…). But that’s our tradition.
As I noted, modern budo systems don’t adhere to specific Shinto or Buddhist deities as a general rule, and to try to attach one to them would be, in my opinion, artificial and opposite the very nature of a modern budo, which strives for inclusivity. This applies, I think, just as well to trying to turn modern budo into a vehicle for any specific, narrow religious or social factions. Whatever your religious persuasion or social POV, it should be left at the doorsteps. Training should be for training’s sake, not for proselytizing Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, heterosexual or homosexual practices, or the joys of transgender cross-dressing. You put on a white keikogi, and you are a budo student, period.
Then there’s the bow you give to your teacher. Of course, students should thank their teacher. If it weren’t for the teacher, there wouldn’t be any training or lessons.
But sometimes we forget to also thank, with our hearts, our fellow students. That’s what the tagai no rei is about. Some schools will formalize this show of respect at the end of practice, some won’t. Most schools will ask that you bow to your training partner before you engage with them during practice. This is also tagai no rei.
Several years ago, a judo teacher informed me of a problem in his location regarding such a bow. A judo player at a tournament refused to bow to his opponent at the beginning of a match. The judo player and his family felt that it was an imposition of his religious freedom to bow, Japanese style, because it implied some kind of Buddhist ritual. The player was kicked out of the tournament by the judo teacher. The family (the judo player’s mother was, I was also told, a former Japanese national, so there’s no accounting for general ignorance no matter what nationality you are) even took the matter to court.
The silliness of all this is that the bow to one’s opponent is a ritual, yes, but it’s one of Japanese sportsmanship, not Buddhist ritual. Players even bow to each other in Japanese baseball, certainly NOT a hotbed of Buddhism or Shinto. That’s like shaking the hands of your opponent. Or like boxers bumping boxing gloves before a match, Olympic style fencers holding their foils in a certain position to offer respect to each other, or basketball players high-fiving each other after a game. To refuse to do this might earn angry stares in other sports. In judo, the teacher and tournament organizers have every right to boot you out for not following specific sportsmanship rules as stated in their athletic organization’s guidebook. It doesn’t infringe on your freedom of religion. Rather, the student was trying to impose HIS ideas on a sport, as if he was exempt from long agreed-upon rules that governed the sport. What’s next? He’s exempt from not using a hammer to hit his opponent in the head so he can do a better osoto-gari because he thinks it’s a freedom of religion matter?
So the tagai no rei is done throughout a class. It hopefully develops proper respect for each other. You want to train hard, but you want to train with people who respect you enough that they won’t deliberately try to maim or hurt you because they have no regard for you as a human being. They respect you, and you should respect them. Budo is dangerous enough as a physical training system without having to deal with a psychopath as your partner. The tagai no rei ritualizes that respect. For some people, that ritualization may not mean all that much. They may still look at you as merely a punching bag at their disposal, but at least the form of respect tries to embody respect. It’s better than showing no respect at all. And if you find such a fellow student, just avoid the jerk.
In one of the martial arts I study, the tagai no rei before and at the end of a set of kata with someone is enough. We don’t necessarily need to bow to each other at the end of class. In another form of martial arts that I practice, the formal bowing to the teacher and the kamiza is done, class is ended, and then the students turn and bow to each other sitting in seiza. Different ways of showing tagai no rei may differ from dojo to dojo, depending on their own traditions.
Whatever way this is done, formally or informally, the tagai no rei should be an integral part of training. Or, at the very least, everyone should at least have the feeling of being thankful for having fellow students around to train with.