Ok so this is going to be a quick one. I’m out of town and I can only spend so long in this cafe stealing the internet. Sorry!
Anyway, I just wanted to give a quick plug for a martial arts book that I’ve just started reading. If you’re interested in the more cultural aspects of martial arts (historical, traditional, aesthetic elements) then this book will be an interesting read for you. If you think those things are irrelevant to you then you should also read this book so you can begin to understand how wrong your thinking is.
In the Dojo: A Guide to the Rituals and Etiquette of the Japanese Martial Arts by David Lowry is work that is long overdue. Lowry, who spent much of his martial arts education in Japan writes a half guide half historical analysis work that is both useful and intriguing. The book is broken down into sections and so there is no need to read cover to cover, rather, the reader is at liberty to do as I did and pick out the chapters which are most applicable or interesting. He writes on everything from visiting a traditional training hall to the traditional religious/spiritual ornaments decorating the walls in such a building (kamidana, etc.), to how one should handle various weapons during training, to what students should expect from their instructors and vice versa.
His chapter on being a student was most interesting to me.
In it he describes much of what has been on my mind recently and what I’ve been writing a lot about (respect and how it’s displayed and earned). Lowry also writes extensively on what the proper attitude of a dedicated student should be. He explains that there are several words in Japanese which stand for student (among them deshi as in the equivalent of naebu in our title). Unfortunately I don’t have the book in front of me here at Bruegger’s Bagles or I could quote for you the correct Japanese term for my phrasing of “student” which Lowry identifies. The translation however comes out as “person standing at the gate.” He mentions that this is also his favorite and it is particularly meaningful when he is interacting with newcomers or prospective students at his own school. Yet, this term, Lowry writes, can (and perhaps should) describe our attitude towards our practice at all times. It is a perfect phrase and it hearkens back beautifully to the characters (in both Chinese and Kanji) for the word “Do” (the Way), which similarly depicts a man standing on a path moving towards a destination.
This is not an easy attitude to maintain. As one begins to learn and excel in martial arts training then the ego creeps in and it becomes harder and harder to remember what it is like to be standing at the gate. There have been many times, I am ashamed to admit, that I have been in class and the instructor is teaching something I’ve done a thousand times before. My mind often turns off at this point and I do the technique or listen to the lesson on auto pilot – thinking to myself this is beginner stuff…this is sooooo “standing at the gate.” I can only imagine how much the more difficult this becomes in a school where the curriculum is limited and students go for years without learning something new. But the truth is that to a certain extent there is always something new to learn. A simple front kick can provide a lifetime of lessons and one may never get down perfectly. In this sense, it is helpful to envision ourselves at every class, at every meeting, at every retreat, at every practice opportunity as “standing at the gate.”
While Hagsaeng Naebu is too young to have become repetitive at this point, I am going to work on integrating this attitude into my general practice…imagine the new things I’ll be able to learn!