Courtesy and the Martial Arts

gallery_image_4Karate begins and ends in courtesy. – Gichin Funakoshi

(In the interest of full disclosure – I wrote this and the next post many years ago, when I was practicing a very different ‘karate’ with very different goals. They’re pretty pithy and I thought of deleting them, but decided to leave them in the name of humility…)

The pro-social, personal and moral benefits of practising courtesy and manners are so evident that their place in martial arts training needs no justification.  However, I recently read a paper on the martial arts which argued while manners are desirable, one could be a great fighter without courtesy; manners have no practical benefit in terms of self-defence.  While I—grudgingly—agree that it’s possible to be proficient in a martial arts without practising courtesy, I’d like to argue that courtesy and manners have a very practical role in the development of defensive skills.
Courtesy is at the heart of karate training; recently, in a stressful interpersonal situation I became acutely are aware that a senior member of the association was watching how I behaved towards others.  But why should courtesy and interpersonal skill be so important?  Why not just learn the moves and exercises and leave the rest to life coaches and etiquette teachers if karateka want to learn manners?
All the other benefits aside, it has to do with learning good habits. Namely, the habit of where one’s awareness is most of the time.  Courtesy is defined as polite behaviour, but also as ‘willingess or generosity to provide something needed’ (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000). I cannot recognise the proper occasion for polite behaviour (like knowing when to straighten up from a bow), or understand what others need, without an awareness of others at all times.  Courtesy is the ‘other’ kind of mindfulness, a non-judging awareness of other’s presence, intentions and needs, as well as the complexities of social interaction.  The traditions and rules in the dojo require that students are aware of everyone else on the floor, where they are and their own place in the line.  Only through the study of others can one successfully practise courtesy – or karate.  Over years, the karateka learns to read subtle cues; a look, a shift in posture, that indicate the appropriate occasion to demonstrate good etiquette, the good qualities prized in an exponent of the martial arts.
But again, WHY are these qualities so valued?  Again, putting the obvious benefits aside, such broadened awareness has practical benefits for self-defence.  One practises courtesy far more frequently than one practises combat. One who has spent their years noticing others instead of nursing their own wants may be first to notice tension in a crowd, seeing signs of trouble coming they will steer their friends away from it.  The best karate needn’t raise a hand.  And when two karateka, equal in all other respects, face one another, I’d bet on the one who has spent his years not only perfecting moves, but practising courtesy.  His (or her) ability to read others will make the difference.
Gichin Funakoshi gave us the ‘what’ in the opening quote. The military strategist and swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, gives us (another) ‘why’.
‘Know yourself, win half the time. Know your opponent, win half the time. Know yourself and your opponent, win everytime’.

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