During the Thanksgiving festivities that I took part in, I was struck by the weight of the many traditions of the day as well as the importance of traditions in general. Traditions can be a way to transmit complex but important lessons from generation to generation with very little formal education.
Thanksgiving traditions turn our attention to the good things in our lives and the importance of friends and family. For Thanksgiving, we gather with family friends, sometimes traveling great distances, and share a huge and elaborate meal together. The elaborate and excessively large meal reminds us to celebrate our abundance and prosperity which generally goes hand in hand with being grateful for the things that are going well in our lives. At a proper Thanksgiving table, there is more than enough food for everyone; there’s probably several days worth of food actually. Whatever shortages we might be feeling at other parts of the year will not be felt during Thanksgiving as we bask in a wonderfully abundant meal.
It is also important that we share this abundance with family and friends – even if we don’t know them very well. Just like the Pilgrims and Native Americans came together for the first Thanksgiving, it is expected that who ever we gather with for Thanksgiving will be someone who we will gladly and openly share this wonderful meal with and will otherwise treat as family. The principle is that any number of peoples can come together and harmoniously share things together. The day’s traditions as a whole teach us to be grateful for what is good in our lives and to be open and sharing with others.
These are powerful cultural principles that we learn not from a formal education but by simply doing. Aside from a parent making some guiding statements, no one ever really had to teach us about how to have a traditional Thanksgiving; in experiencing Thanksgiving and its traditions every year, we inherit and gain access to the traditions ourselves. Imagine if there were no Thanksgiving Day at all and we instead went to a school that preached “family is important,” and “be grateful for the abundance in your life.” How successful and long-lasting would that school be in transmitting those values vs how long-lasting and emotionally-evocative Thanksgiving Day has been in teaching and transmitting those values? Instead of merely telling others about these values, Thanksgiving Day has us live them out and experience how wonderful they are together, and that’s what sticks in our minds.
In Taekwondo, we also have many traditions that seek to teach us something. Formal bowing at the beginning and end of class is one such tradition that on the outside seems simplistic, but it actually teaches us powerful principles of our art. (Master Pearson has often spoke on this topic before, and I cannot touch the depth to which he illuminates this topic; it’s just that I feel I have finally gained a little personal insight into why traditions are so important).
In our traditional bowing in ceremony, the teacher kneels at the front center of the room, and the students kneel in a side-by-side line in rank order facing the teacher. The highest ranking student kneels on the left side of the room (relative to the teacher) between the line of students and the teacher. Everyone bows togethers.
Each of these elements teaches us something in a way that a lecture could not. Students line up side by side in one line to show that all the students are one group and are equal peers to one another. The highest ranking student sits on the left side of the room not only to honor his or her hard work and achievements but also to force a separation from just being a student so as to prepare him or her to eventually fulfill a role as a teacher; martial arts education is not complete without becoming an accomplished teacher as well as a receptive student. Everyone bows together to signify that we should all bow to each other because we must respect each other; the teacher should be honored for striving to pass on valuable knowledge to the students, and the students should be honored for undertaking the remarkable and trying martial journey that is martial arts training. These actions support respect, unity, community, and group mind.
Again, these are virtues that could easily be lectured on in a class, but that would have no where near the same impact as being made to live them out everyday in the form of these traditional practices. Traditions are puposefully engineered to be simple enough to be passed along from generation to generation but powerful enough to continually impart the desired lessons. I have always been a stickler about sticking to traditions, and I now find that the more I into our traditions, the more important their preservation is. Let us open our hearts and minds to what the traditions are trying to teach us and be sure that those who follow behind us have excellent access to these old and subtle teachers.