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Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2002

Should we teach ethics in the dojo?

Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

         We are living in ethically trying times.  Not that ethics was ever very popular, but lately we seem awash in the consequences of the lack of ethical considerations.  Enron is well-known to everyone, as is the crisis in the Catholic church.  Tyco's CEO, Dennis Kozlowski, was recently forced to step down because, in spite of hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation, he cheated on sales taxes when he bought art work.  Why?  The rules didn't apply to him (except it seems like maybe they actually do).

         Other panelists today will be talking about various types of malfeasance by martial arts teachers.  Some of these are shocking examples, and fortunately, they are relatively rare. Martial arts teachers, like most teachers everywhere, strive to be sincere in their teaching.  Terry Nosanchuk has suggested that ethical training in children's martial arts makes the difference between a schoolyard bully and a wiser kid who learns to mediate conflict, and that there are
such teachers out there (1998).  Terrence Webster-Doyle’s Martial Arts for Peace Association takes that idea a step further, in advocating conflict resolution as a part of children's martial art practice (1997).  Few sane adults would want their son or daughter to take a martial art class that didn't include ethical training on some level (remember, I said sane), regardless of whether the art form is more sport- or traditionally-oriented.

         When it comes to ethical training or philosophizing in adult martial arts classes, however, things get dicey.  Put simply, most grownups feel their ethical training is best gotten elsewhere; for example, in church, and that the martial arts instructor should, in the words of a college administrator who once hired one of my colleagues to teach in a physical education curriculum, "Just stick to front kicks."  The issue gets diceier still in New York City, where
Christians of varying stripes, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and others can, and do, coexist in martial arts groups, drawn together by a common interest in a particular art form, but seemingly not much else.  This is just my opinion, but based on both my teaching experience and observation of others' teaching over the past 16 years, there is a special reluctance on the part of NYC martial arts teachers to discuss the religious, philosophical, ethical or spiritual components of their art forms in class.  While I may be able to draw out some comments from them in private conversation, it is rare that these subjects come up in teaching.  Maggie Newman, a very
well-known Yang style taiji teacher with whom I had the privilege of working almost never mentioned Taoism, the Classics or anything else that shaped Master Cheng's practice besides acknowledging their existence.  In her opinion, people didn’t need to know those things in order to learn taiji.  By stripping the context from the art form, she could to teach as many people as possible, more easily.  Otani Yoshiteru, founder of New York Budokai, is a rare exception to this trend, though since his retirement none of the rest of us have made ethical concerns as much a part of training as he did.

         The only time ethical issues come up is, unfortunately, when a problem arises, by
which time crisis management becomes more important than giving the ethical instruction that might have prevented the problem in the first place.  Is it a good idea to teach ethics in an adult martial arts class?  Is there a way to do so without offending students or "turning off" potential students?

         The first part of the answer is relatively easy in terms of koryu, at least.  The samurai class, developers of  koryu, subscribed to many ethical texts.  Some samurai families had their own codes of ethics, passed down through generations, added to or modified as times changed.
One good example is the Koyo Gunkan, the code of ethics and strategy of the Takeda clan (Bennett 1999).  A portion of the Koyo Gunkan, the Kyujukyu Kaken of Takeda Nobushige, written during the mid-16th century, notes, “Endeavor never to take a person’s life” (1999, 29).
Though the Hagakure was written in the mid-Tokugawa era, it is a reflection of consideration of ethical codes of the time.  “During happy times, pride and extravagance are dangerous.  If one is not prudent in ordinary times, he will not be able to catch up.  A person who advances during good times will falter during the bad” (1979, 56).  Lest we think no one took this stuff seriously, Hiroaki Sato, in Legends of the Samurai, excerpts a memoir by Arai Hakuseki (1659 -1725) of his father, showing the extent that one's character and behavior was a matter of continuous self-discipline.  “Even when he laughed, I don’t remember him doing so loudly.  Much less so when he scolded someone; I never heard him raise his voice.  When he said something, it was sparingly; he never carried himself lightly”  (1995, 282).  In modern times, there was Nitobe Inazo's Bushido, which, contrary to some popular beliefs is a memoir of Nitobe’s samurai family upbringing rather than a doctrine, written originally in English in 1899.  “The tripod that supported the framework of Bushido was said to be Chi, Jin, Yu respectively wisdom, benevolence and courage” (1975, 64).  These philosophical considerations became part of koryu practices.  For example, in Tamiya ryu iaijutsu, the first cut of a kata is not necessarily a death blow; rather, it is intended as a warning to break off an attack or face dire consequences (Alexanian 1998, n.p.).

         Therefore, teaching an ethical component to koryu not only should be self-explanatory, it could be considered part of a teacher's obligation, especially if that obligation is to teach culture along with technique.  As most people in this room know, in teaching sword technique, proper manners and self-discipline in the dojo is essential to learning potentially deadly techniques in an atmosphere of trust and good will.  Ethical training goes beyond to how one conducts one's life outside the dojo as well.  This is where things get sticky. I have unfortunately heard of an aikido student who behaved well-enough in the dojo, but used the techniques he learned there to beat up his wife when he got home.  No one in the dojo knew what he was doing until he was arrested.  While there is no way a teacher can foresee such an event, an emphasis on proper conduct both in and out of the dojo gives notice that such behavior will not be tolerated, especially if it is accompanied by swift action if trouble does happen.  (If it sounds like I'm talking about children's martial arts training here, maybe its because in some ways, it's not all that different.)

         The first factor in ethical teaching, therefore, is prevention.  I hate to put it so bluntly, but some people don't belong in your (or anyone else's) dojo.  Sometimes, if you polish a tile to make a mirror, all you get is a worn-down tile, no matter how much you polish.  No amount of ethical talkings-to will get through to some people.  Like the Tyco CEO, they figure the rules don't apply to them, and do what they want regardless of how it affects anyone else.  In a small dojo, this can be a very big problem.  The best solution is to establish early what is expected of
people, and de-invite them to practice if necessary.  This can be very painful for everyone; but in my experience, it has been worth the heat when I've had to take it for a better quality of student.
It beats the alternative - losing better students who have been annoyed or victimized by the "rough tile."  Obviously this flies in the face that anyone can learn to be a better person through budo.  Is it snotty?  Yeah.  Do I care?  No.  If someone is going to raise a bokuto over my head, I better be able to trust him.  More importantly, if she raises it over one of my students' heads, I had better make sure of that trust.

         Next, bring up ethics in class.  Mr. Otani used to do this.  When I was first starting at NY Budokai, he would show up in class on a regular basis, several times a month.  While he would always work on technique with us, he also always had us sit down for a talk.  Among the things he brought up were:

         Personally, I never feel like I have the moral authority of Mr. Otani.  Few people probably do, but it doesn't matter.  In martial arts, sincerity of heart is more important to practice than anything else.  Like dieting, it's more important to get back on the track, rather than berate yourself for screwing up and eating that piece of pie when….well, you get the point.

         Will teaching ethics in a martial arts class offend some people?  Maybe.  They may feel that, as grownups, they already know this stuff.  Or they may feel (wrongly) that the teacher is putting herself on a pedestal by talking about ethical conduct.  Those with exclusivist religious beliefs may feel you are intruding.  Observers in your class may think you are being "preachy," instead of getting to the "good stuff."  Well.  What good is technique if you don't know how to apply it?  Maybe you don't really need them in your class anyway.

         Does anyone care about ethics anymore?  George H. Bristol, a U.S. Marine Corps officer, credits studying koryu with providing a sense of ethics he feels is lacking in modern military training (2002).  Such training makes him both a better officer and a better soldier, able to exercise compassion and not just lethal technical expertise imparted by his military training. To cite an even more unusual example: A young Maasai tribesman was in NYC when the World Trade Center was attacked.  As a warrior, he felt he had to do something, but it seemed there was nothing he could do to assist in fighting on our behalf.  When he returned home, he told the villagers what happened in New York.  The Maasai have no telephones or television, and don't even know what a skyscraper is.  Never mind.  When they heard about the number of people killed and wounded, arrangements were quickly made to offer 17 cows to the surviving victims of the WTC disaster.  A cow is one of the most valuable of a Maasai’s possessions.  Giving one,
let alone 17, entails great personal sacrifice and is considered an extremely honorable act.  The cows were symbolically accepted by a U.S. diplomat, and warrior honor was satisfied (no, the cows are not on their way to New York).  While this is a quaint story on the one hand, on the other it is very moving that somewhere in the 21st century, there are people who still consider honor to be a concept worth exercising when the need arises.  We can do no less.

                       Copyright 2002 Deborah Klens-Bigman


Alexanian, Michael
1998    Personal communication.

Bennett, Alexander C.
1999    “Neglected treasure, the Koyo Gunkan” Sword and Spirit Berkeley Heights, NJ: Koryu
      Books p. 35-58.

Bristol, George H.
2002    “The professional perspective” Keiko Shokon Berkeley Heights, NJ: Koryu Books p.

Nitobe, Inazo
1975    Bushido: The warrior’s code Burbank, CA: Ohara Publications.

Nosanchuk, Terry
1998    “Martial arts: the non-violent way?” paper given at the Guelph School of Japanese
      Sword Arts, University of Guelph, Ontario.

Sato, Hiroaki
1995    “Arai Hakuseki: ‘My Father’” Legends of the Samurai Woodstock, NY: Overlook Pr. p.

Takeda Nobushige
1998    “Kyujukyu Kakun: The ninety-nine precepts of the Takeda family” Sword and Spirit
      Berkeley Hieghts, NJ: Koryu Books p. 17-34.

Tsunetomo, Yamamoto (W.S. Wilson, tr.)
1979    Hagakure New York: Avon Books.

Webster-Doyle, T.
1997    “Viewing human conflict through the martial arts” Journal of Asian Martial Arts 6:2, p.