The bow, the beginning and end of all things
Have you ever wondered why Shotokan karate involves so much bowing?
I know I did when I first joined a dojo.
The reason is really quite simple.
It is all about courtesy and respect.
Of all the twenty precepts left to us by Master Gichin Funakoshi, my personal favourite is number one, and to me it says it all, "Do not forget that karate-do begins, and ends with rei".
Now this means more than just bowing at the begining and the end of each kata, "rei" also means having respect for others, as well as self respect.
You see the art of Shotokan karate-do first came to life in Japan, a country where bowing is an integral part of everyday life.
Everyone does it, everywhere, and often.
In fact to not bow properly whenever you meet, greet, thank, or have any interaction with another person for any reason what so ever, would be considered extremely rude. This is especially true in the Japanese work place, where bowing takes on a role akin to that of a karate dojo.
While in both places, "why" a person bows is out of "courtesy and respect" for someone, or something, just as importantly in both places, "how" a person bows depends on the "rank" of the person, or the importance of the thing to which they are bowing.
For example, in a Japanese company which is a highly structured society, "how" an employee bows depends on their rank, and their status within the corporation. By this I mean the lower a person's rank within the company, the deeper and longer their bow to their superiors. On the other hand the higher a person's rank within the company, the higher and shorter their bow to one of their junior staff. Often in the case of a very senior executive, their bow in return to the bow from someone of a much lower rank could often be likened to a simple nod of the head.
Since a dojo society is also highly structured environment, it is only natural therefore that bowing based on rank would also find it's way into a Japanese martial art like karate. Today this custom of bowing based on rank is followed even in the smallest karate dojo.
So just how does a new student, unfamiliar with karate and all it's traditions come to understand when, where, and why we bow?
It's simple, they learn through proper instruction and also by example.
If you are already a student of karate you will know what I mean.
If you are not, then I suppose the best way for me to explain the in's and out's of bowing would be for us to follow a new white belt through her introduction to the world of karate, and the art of "rei", a Japanese word which simply means, "bow".
Let's call our new student Cathy.
Having just signed up for a beginners course Cathy, now dressed in her new white gi, is ready to enter the dojo for the very first time. It is here at the threshold to the dojo it's self that Cathy will be introduced to "rei" for the very first time. Here a more senior student assigned to acquaint Cathy with dojo etiquette, will explain to her that a proper bow is always performed at the entrance prior to stepping into or out of the dojo. Her senior will explain that this is done as a sign of respect for the dojo it's self, since the dojo or "training hall" is where all of our learning takes place.
The next bow Cathy will be instructed to perform will take place shortly after she enters the dojo when she is introduced to the dojo's Chief Instructor, or sensei. As the most senior ranking person within the dojo society the sensei, or "teacher", receives the highest possible respect, since he or she, is the person most qualified to teach the students all of the skills and techniques that ultimately define the particular style of karate being taught within the dojo.
At the call, "line up", Cathy as the newest student will be shown to the end of the line of students. Following the example of the sensei and the other students, in rank order, Cathy will now be introduced to "seiza" or the "kneeling" position. It is from seiza, Cathy will learn, that the more formal bows of respect take place at the beginning, and at the end, of every class. She will also discover that this bow will differs from all of the ones she has previously performed.
In this instance the sensei and all of the students, once again in rank order, will first place both their hands on the floor in front of themselves, and then bow deeply enough to almost touch their forehead to the ground. This, the deepest bow possible, will first be made to the dojo shrine and the memory of the "Founder", for without the Founder the dojo's particular style of karate would not exist.
The second bow, performed in exactly the same manner, will be to the dojo's sensei, for without the sensei there would be no one to pass on the art of karate to the students of today. The sensei in turn bows to the students and by returning the bow he or she acknowledges that without the students there would be no one for the sensei to teach, and thus the sensei would be unable to carry out their obligation to their teacher which is to pass on all of their knowledge to others.
Following the formal bows, and after a brief warm up involving the whole class, Cathy is taken to one side by a senior student or perhaps a sempai (assistant teacher) who will start her introduction karate by going over some of the basic hand techniques and stances commonly used during class. But first another bow is required.
At this point Cathy will be taught that a bow is always performed between two or more persons, regardless of their rank, prior to working together for any reason. In such a situation she will be told, students of equal rank will bow to an equal depth. If, however, she should find herself partnered with a sempai or the sensei then of course the person with the lowest rank, will have the deepest, and the longest bow.
Like I said, bowing is all about courtesy and respect, and as in life, bowing in a dojo is also governed by rank.
This respect for rank is not just based on personality, but more importantly it is based on experience and knowledge. Kyu belts, (or lower ranks) must have respect for their sempai's (or senior ranks) because the sempai's have already travelled the path that the juniors one day hope walk. The sempai's on the other hand must have respect for their juniors, for they alone know what it is like to have once been in their place. This respect in turn carries on up the line to the sensei, then to the shihan or "master" who heads up the organization to which the dojo is affiliated, and then finally to the Founder of the particular style of karate that the students study.
Two hours later at the end of her first class Cathy has a pretty good idea of when, where, and why we all bow so often. Yes she still has much to learn about bowing, especially when it come to kata, self defence, and kumite, but at the end of day one at least she is on the right path, and that is what matters the most. For karate-do as an art is ultimately about building and enhancing the character of the individual participants.
So always keep in the fore front of your mind that when you bow, you must do so with a pure thought, and a true heart.
For without this underlying ideology of courtesy and respect, karate would be a very hollow thing indeed.
To bow well physically at any time,
you must first bow well in your mind.
Part the clouds - see the way.
"The objective of karate-do is to contribute to the evolution
of the human spirit through physical and mental training."
Sensei Peter Lindsay