“Budo (martial ways) begins and ends with Rei ho.”
This is one of the key concepts Nishioka Sensei stresses every time we meet. It is very easy to misunderstand or undervalue this piece of advice – to see it as part of some outmoded sense of chivalry. This attitude reflects a perception that the Koryu (lit. old schools) have no relevance in our ‘modern world of violence’ because the ‘rules ‘or ‘customs’ have changed. My direct and personal experience is quite the opposite.
Firstly, what isn’t rei ho? It isn’t a set of inflexible ‘rules’ that govern ones’ behaviour in a variety of circumstances. I’m sure many of us have experience of meaningless ‘good manners’ delivered without any ‘heart’ or sincerity. This false type of etiquette is the reason many people underestimate the value of rei ho.
Then what is rei ho or etiquette? To me, essentially it is an innate sensitivity and a level of appreciation that allows us to build and maintain harmonious relationships. It is an unconscious awareness of our self and our impact on our environment and the people within it. It is a gracious, intuitive experience of our connectedness to our universe. It is a state of heart and mind and body. It is life and death.
To ‘begin and end with Rei ho’ allows us to naturally express our selves in a certain way without offence to gods or planet or people.
How do we learn good etiquette if it isn’t a set of rules to memorise? The same way we learn Budo – begin by imitating those who have etiquette that is admirable to us. As we imitate, we must think about what it is we are doing so it does not become empty form!
This very simple act of being conscious of ourselves and our impact is the beginning of enlightened awareness and this awareness is the beginning of a capacity to control, flow with and minimise danger in our immediate environment. It is the beginning of all practical ‘self defence’ – that thing so many go seeking in martial arts in the first place!
As a ‘new student’ in a Dojo, how can we tell when we may be doing something that breaches etiquette? Be conscious – rather than passively observe, actively notice – see if everyone else brings their clothing into the Dojo to change after class. See if others pay their fees late or talk unnecessarily in class. See if others keep their nails long or wear gis that are unclean or wear jewellery. See if others listen when the teacher is talking or talk more themselves. See if others care for their weapons in a certain way.
Think about why these things might be .
My experience is that we may discover there is an entirely practical reason for all these ‘details’ and that, as these details coalesce into a coherent picture, we may begin to lead to a very different type of life.
Rei ho will allow us to be in accord with a certain place and a certain time.
When I was first in Japan , the people I stayed with in Tokyo always left a little food on their plates at the end of the meal. I imitated this and thought about it and eventually realised that by their action they signified their appreciation for the amount and quality of the food, for the provider and the preparer. This culture was unusual to me though I could see it was heartfelt.
When a little later I travelled to Iwama, I saw the uchi deshi taking only small amounts on their plate each time and making sure that their plate was entirely clear of food at the end of the meal. I realised that Saito Sensei had a different culture – one with which I was familiar from my upbringing. Only take what you can eat – no waste. These two examples of very different rei ho were aimed at and achieved the same result.
Rei ho is entirely practical and can defuse otherwise potentially violent situations or allow us to take control without warning. An experience in the Security industry holds a simple example. I observed eight men exiting a bar in a rowdy manner in the mid-afternoon. The area was full of tourists including families with children. They were heading to another hotel nearby but were being very loud and aggressive, menacing people around them. I knew that weekend we had a large group of yachtsmen in town and the dress of these men told me they were part of that contingent.
I approached them smiling and, as they observed my uniform, I could see that they expected trouble but at odds of eight to one, were not overly concerned. I asked them politely if they were here as part of the regatta and whether they were having a good time? This clearly wasn’t what they were expecting and most responded in a friendly manner. I asked them if they had left their families at home and whether they had wondered what might be happening back there – more friendly banter. Still several of them were waiting for ‘the ultimatum’. I asked them how they would feel if right now their wife and children at home were being menaced by a group of semi-drunk men. Would they hope that someone would intervene in their absence so their wives and children would feel protected?
The mood had changed now – one or two weren’t happy about this new direction but their peers were in control. I explained that my job was to provide that intervention so people like their women and children wouldn’t feel scared – that, as men, we knew that this was in fact all our jobs. Could they help me? I would walk with them to the hotel. One now offered an apology for the behaviour I’d observed and explained that it was just high spirits and I let them know I totally understood that. Later that evening I looked in on them at the hotel as part of my rounds and they had eaten, were more sober and soon after left for their accommodation.
This etiquette also contained my strategy for dealing with this situation if it became violent – it allowed me to get close, choose my position, exit and targets and successfully unbalanced the members of this group. Rei ho is entirely practical.
In my early years in martial arts I was fortunate enough to have my senpai point out to me the need to “study the man as well as the art”. This simple advice resonated with me – I began to see how this lead to modelling the values demonstrated by an admirable person and helped to understand what motivated them.
When instructing uchi deshi, it is always stressed that everything we do in our Dojo is done a certain way and that they must imitate this until they understand why this is so. Only when they understand it completely can they vary from or suggest an improvement to that way. This is a very simple guideline that can lead a very long way. Not only does it ensure that the benefits of the tradition are maintained and the art is handed on – it means that enhancements can also be made to ensure we pass on our Budo as a ‘live’ art to those who will come after us.