I’ve seen a lot of different pandemic greetings in an effort to stop the spread of germs from handshaking. There’s waving, nodding, toe touching, the Vulcan greeting, fist bumping, and elbow touching (which I don’t understand because didn’t you just sneeze into your elbow and now you want to touch your germ-y elbow to mine? Ew!) But the greeting I like the best is bowing.
Please, can we adopt the Asian custom of bowing into American culture?
Here’s why I like bowing. First, there's no touching involved which avoids sweaty palms, limp grips, and other unpleasant handshakes. It also avoids the awkward or uncomfortable hugs you’d rather not give or receive.
Second, bowing is more than a greeting. It is courtesy. It is respect. It is gratitude. It is a small act that conveys great meaning.
Gichin Funakoshi is known as the father of modern day karate because he brought his Okinawan martial art of self-defense to mainland Japan, which contributed to its introduction to the rest of the world. *Stay with me, I have a point.* In his book, The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate, he states, “Karate begins and ends with rei." Rei means esteem, gratitude, courtesy, and respect. Respect for others and respect for ourselves. This respect is demonstrated every time we bow. *Told you I had a point.*
In karate class, we bow onto the dojo floor to show respect to the place in which we learn. We bow to our sensei (teacher) to show gratitude, courtesy, and respect for their knowledge and the lessons they will teach. The bow signifies our willingness to learn and our appreciation for being taught. We bow to other students to assure them of our desire to work together to advance both our training; we are not facing off in combat.
My Okinawan weapons teacher, Mitsutada Iha, explained a proper bow as standing with heals together, toes apart, and hands at your side. With a straight spine and keeping the head in line with the back, hinge forward at the waist about 30 degrees. Mitsutada Sensei said, “You are showing the most vulnerable part of the body—your head—to someone.”
Let that sink in for a minute. You are trusting another person with the most vulnerable part of your body, and you are doing this without seeing them. Contrary to what Mr. Miyagi in the original karate kid told Daniel-san, you aren’t supposed to look in the other person’s eyes. That shows mistrust. Looking down humbles you. It’s a vulnerable position that demonstrates trust. That’s a difficult concept for many people to accept. I can’t speak for other nationalities, but most Americans don’t like showing vulnerability. In fact, when shaking hands we’re taught to give a firm handshake, as a limp hand shows a sign of weakness, and to look the other person in the eyes.
According to Funakoshi, "True rei is the outward appearance of a respectful heart." Anyone can go through the motions and bow at all the proper times, but if they don’t have a sincere heart, they don’t possess true rei. Remember rei is respect and courtesy. Funakoshi’s book guides the reader through the spiritual aspects of martial arts, which is much more than striking, punching, and kicking. Karate-do is a way of life. Its philosophy is meaningful in martial arts and in our everyday lives. These principles encourage us to take a deeper look at ourselves, at how we live, and how we treat those around us.
Funakoshi says, "The difference between men and animals lies in rei. Combat methods that lack rei are not martial arts but merely contemptible violence. Physical power without rei is no more than brute strength, and for human beings it is without value. All martial arts begin and end with rei. Unless they are practiced with a feeling of reverence and respect, they are simply forms of violence. For this reason martial arts must maintain rei from beginning to end."
I believe everything should maintain rei from beginning to end. Whether it’s home life, school/work life, sports & recreation, or a simple greeting, we should treat everyone and everything with reverence, respect, and courtesy. If we did, the world would be a much nicer and safer place to interact.
What do you think? Are you living your life with true rei? Do you treat yourself and others with courtesy, esteem and respect even when their lives or opinions differ from yours? What about your characters? What changes can you make right now to demonstrate the rei in your heart? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.
Author and Martial Arts Instructor