To all five or six of my readers (well, there’s actually several more, but it ain’t like I’m gonna be rich and famous from this blog!), Happy Holidays! …And many, many thanks for your replies, for reading my meandering posts, and for supporting my efforts at making comments on budo.
While in America the end-of-the-year season is primarily equated with the Christmas season, in Japan the biggest event has been (up to now; Christmas and gift-giving is catching on quick in Japan) New Year’s, as a time to reflect upon the past year, to hope for the New Year, and to give thanks, or kansha, to everything that has helped you to survive another tumultuous year.
It’s a nice tradition, one that we can easily dovetail into whatever religion we may believe in, or even if we’re atheists. Take a moment to reflect upon all the help that people, things and sentient beings have given you and elicit in yourself a spirit of thankfulness.
Perhaps in a modern martial arts world dominated by the machismo sports characterization, we don’t tend to focus on such sentiments, but we should. Always burning up the adrenaline, pumping up our testosterone, and working on our aggressive behavior may lead to too much stress and strain on our hearts and minds.
In martial arts, an emphasis is rightly placed on developing combative skills, whether they are archaic, sports-oriented, or combative, or a combination of two or more of these skills. Developing a combative and/or sportive mental attitude is usually the order of the day in training. But at the beginning and end of a traditional budo training session, there is always the requisite bowing. It’s not just a meaningless act. You are supposed to truly be thankful that you are healthy and fit enough to engage in training, and thankful that you have training partners, teachers and equipment necessary for the development of your mind and body. At the end, again you give thanks and also relief that your partners, teachers and equipment kept you safe and in one piece.
That’s kind of a paradox, isn’t it? In randori or kumite, sometimes it seems like you’re about to take off somebody’s head, or your partner is about to do the same to you. Even in some classical koryu kata, with predeterimined moves, it can feel pretty hairy and scary. Yet, at the end of avoiding getting poked, or trying to poke somebody with a sharp stick, you have to give thanks.
The balance is necessary, according to Asian philosophical concepts of balance, of the Yin and Yang of things. Too much aggressive intent, even in martial arts, without a leavening of thankfulness and appreciation of one’s fellow human beings, will lead to a bowstring that is too taut, too tight, to ready to snap and break at the slightest pull.
Have you ever visited a dojo where it’s as quiet as a church (and I’m not talking about a black Southern Baptist Revival church choir), save for the slam of bodies falling, the kiai and barked commands and rote replies? …Where the only voice is the sensei’s, as he shouts his commands and the students obediently follow without hesitation or humor? Folks, (to borrow a phrase from Joel Salatin, a curmudgeon of the first degree who writes about farming and foods), that ain’t natural.
In the oldest koryu traditions, including the one I’ve personally participated in, there’s discipline, yes. There’s really hard training. But there’s laughter. There’s questions and answers, there’s smiles in between earnest grimaces and gasps when a particular lock proves effective. There’a whole range of emotions and verbal discussions as teachers and students work on understanding the methods and kata as best they can, physically, mentally and emotionally, and it often necessitates a lot of verbal dialogues.
There’s also a friendly dose of mutual respect and thankfulness, from teacher to students, students to teacher, and students to students. In a healthy dojo, the competition is primarily within oneself, trying to make one’s own self better. You treat those below you with respect, as younger brothers and sisters, and you should feel charged with the responsibility of bringing them up to speed, not using them like easy targets and living punching bags. A “traditional” dojo that encourages aggressive competition within its students to the point of physical malice breaking out is dysfunctional to the extreme.
A grateful attitude should permeate every training session. But at the end of the year, thought should be doubly given to how those around you have helped you positively to become what you are: your parents, teachers, family and friends, your God or the universe or some lucky strands of DNA that coalesced to form you. Send positive thoughts their way, give thanks in whatever form you adhere to (prayers, mental post-it notes, cards and letters, well wishes, thoughts, tweets), but most of all, FEEL the feeling of gratefulness, of kansha.
It will do your heart good.