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Home > Columns > "The Grindstone" > December, 2005 - Respect and Plastic Budo Figurines

Respect and Plastic Budo Figurines by "The Grindstone"

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This column was written by Mike Collins

"Budo begins and ends with Rei (respect)"

I have heard the above quote attributed to the founder, OSensei; I'm not sure if it's actually a well used budo maxim or if it was indeed something said by the founder, but I've heard it attributed to him, and I like it that way. It makes sense that someone with some understanding would say it.

Anyone who's spent any time around people who have real physical skills, people who have not a single qualm about employing those skills to hurt anyone who causes them to feel slighted, will understand that respect is a survival skill as much or more than it is a courtesy extended to others in a polite society.

It is my contention that respect does not equal courtesy, though respect demands courteous behavior often. I'm not interested in writing a scholarly paper on the deeper meanings of respect, rather, I'd like to present some food for thought about what the phrase above may be intended to convey.

Respect demands that no one be taken lightly, and that one always assume that what one can see on the surface is virtually never the sum of what is to be found if one decides to climb aboard and take a ride. The old, fat man who moves slowly, might just be having an off day, or, even more deviously, he might just be sandbagging a bit for some reason known only to him. Respect would have me treat that old man as if I knew that he could hand me my ass, even if I have doubts that he could do anything of the sort. Respect, on his part, would have him behave in a way that I might consider as sandbagging because he's aware that he has aches or pains that might preclude him having all of his weapons available, so rather than strut and fake strength, he chooses to tone his presence down, and for now, act the part of the benevolent old man. He is showing respect for my sincere intent to measure him, and he's showing respect for his own ability to be the better man if only by treachery. Martial respect is an entirely different thing than the petty ass kissing so often seen in office politics and "polite society".

I'm not personally a big fan of the old martial art maxim that you never take your eyes off of your partner while bowing, for respect of the possibility that he can end conflict in a single stroke. In the dojo, I assume benevolent intent on the part of my partners, and I recognize that the dojo is different from things like area trainings, or seminars where I know most everyone, or seminars where I'm completely strange, or a public park, or a bar in a hotel or a bar full of drunk rednecks and bikers. Each situation should require a different set of mental "rules" and my understanding of respect should change in each case.

I frequently eat in the same restaurant in Japantown, and know most of the waitresses and waiters; I exchange Christmas gifts with the owner of the place. It's much like going to my mom's kitchen for a meal. It never enters my mind to try to get the back table and have my back to the wall so that I can't be attacked; to my mind that would be disrespectful to my friend's home in a sense ( I recognize that her restaurant is NOT her home -though my wife says it's like my second home).

On those rare occasions that I go into bars for any reason, it is still my habit to try to get that back table just inside the door, with the wall at my back and to scan the room and see whom I need to pay close attention to, old habits die hard. And I treat every person in that bar as if they had a gun under their shirt, because it's never out of the question. Mostly I avoid bars; there are idiots inside even the nice ones.

When I train in seminars, I am always polite as possible to people I don't know, and I never assume anything about them until we've trained for a while, and I have a chance to decide how I feel about them personally; that is not a quick process. I playfully abuse my friends, and they are welcome to do their best to me too. But even that is always with respect and sincerity.

Frequently, when I've been the stranger, I've had some interesting experiences (actually it was a lot less predictable when I wore a white belt and was about 50 lbs lighter, but I still get a bit of a surprise now and again). When I wore a white belt, there were always a certain "type" who would "teach" me as soon as we bowed into each other, there were others who dismissed me as being more trouble than I was worth, after all how could they benefit from training with a white belt? Almost invariably if the seminar was fairly large there would be one or two people, who would bow in to me, and just start training, usually carefully and mindfully at first, then we would ramp things up to the point where I felt stretched, or they did, and at that point they would train with me until we had to switch partners. In my mind, those people understood what the founder meant when he said "Budo begins and ends with respect".

I've had some of my best training with white belts. They usually are more focused, and having not been around as long as older, more senior folks, they are usually not as banged up. I find that they often give what I feel is too much respect to a black belt and hakama, but I've not ever seen a case of that which doesn't eventually pass (usually shortly after they get a black belt and hakama, then realize they still don't know nuthin').

Almost always there would be one or two (I still run into them now as a fat, big guy with a dress), who would have to establish pecking order. They are an eternal pain in the ass, but they are a fact of life. My job, if I understand respect, is to not compete with them and take their head off with some hard throws or wrist twists; my job is to try hard to train with them as if they were my kid, and they were behaving maybe badly, but needed more protection than abuse. This respect is not for them, though they benefit. It is a practice for me to try to show, and indeed have, respect for my intent to become a better human being. The guy I was yesterday would have gotten a kick out of knocking them on their ki-ster, and pinning just a bit too much on a nikkyo. The guy I hope to be tomorrow is protective to drunks and fools, because at various times, he's been them. Still is a fool, frequently.

The guys (and yeah, the women too) who do the pecking order thing remind me of the plastic figurines of martial artists you can see in Chinatown or Japantown trinket stores. They look like they are really good martially, but there is simply not the depth of character that is required to survive outside of the safety zone that is a dojo, in a really dangerous place. They are "shells" of martial artists, and until they get it, they never develop into human beings. Or into real sincere martial artists.

And every day, I have to check to see if my shell is melted yet, and if I'm any closer to a real understanding of rei, myself.

Respect has a lot to do with sincerity. Sincerity of intent, sincerity of action, sincerity to look in a mirror and see, every day, who's back in there, and if he's any better at all than he was a day ago. Good days begin and end with respect, on many levels, and with many meanings. Bad days, I'm like a figurine. I can look good and not have any humanity.

Respect yourself, and go have a good day.

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