Giri is a Japanese word for obligation and it is often translated as duty or respect but in the martial arts meaning the concept becomes more honor-tied and feudal.
When you contract to study with a master, particularly when you claim disciple, devotee, or deshiship, the obligation is considered to be for the rest of one’s life, or until the master retires or fires you.
There are different degrees of obligation:
In general, it is expected that you be very polite and use the master’s title and preferred name in public. This rule does not change in private unless the master initiates the change. Very polite means bowing, introducing people, smoothing the way, making people comfortable, getting chairs, water, whatever. The Japanese usually attach a san, sama, or title like sensei or Soke to even first name relationships just to be extra careful and avoid offending. The Japanese can be excessively polite, but given most Americans’ unconscious rudeness, they are quite refreshing.
When one speaks or writes of the master, it is always expected that one puts his/her actions in a positive light (If you’ve a Crazy Wisdom guru, this can be a real test of your creativity.). This token of respect is particularly important when dealing with people outside the art. The master’s reputation is increased or decreased by the actions of his students.
When walking with the master, walk one step to the rear on the left side so his sword arm is free and his back is protected. If he’s left handed, or you are requested to, take the other side.
For a sport art, you are required to pay your fees and wear the master’s colors when you compete.
For a combat art, you are required to pay back in service (you join the lineage) or fees (you attend the seminars) what you think the techniques are worth. What is it worth to you when a technique saves your life? Usually a lot more than the cost of the seminar. Giri is negated through trading techniques like Vinnie and “Shoulders” showing me how to screen away observers, or Kevin showing me how to repel down a cliff, or the Apache Scouts teaching me how to use bird signals to follow intruders. Sometimes it is balanced by the exchange of gifts or information. I train in a number of very effective martial and energy arts and when I attend a seminar and learn something from another master that exceeds the fee, I will usually share a technique I picked up elsewhere. I have studied with some masters whose arts prepared me to be cannon fodder, still I follow giri by not naming them or their ritualized ignorance. I try to enhance the reputations of those I think are worthwhile like Danse De Rue, Rich Mooney, the DSI, Yang Jwing/Ming, Mantak Chia, Elana Rubinfeld, and of course Hatsumi-soke.
For a spiritual art, what do we owe to a master who reveals our true nature? A Zen master would say nothing since we are all immortal and being enlightened is just being yourself. A guru of the Krishna consciousness would say you must give all your worldly goods to the sangha (training group) and start working in the bean sprout cave. A Christian tithes ten percent. A Buddhist supports the dharma, offers charity to teachers and seeks rightness.One has to use religious examples because the spirit of budo and chivalry are not easily modeled in these gentile times. However, masters of the warrior ways (budo) that are indeed avatars, not those who wear the mantle and quote the talk, are truly rare. If they are willing to sacrifice their time to better your life, then the rules of giri require you to assume the same generosity toward them.
It has been my experience that the martial community in the West has become sorely ignorant of these teachings even to the point of denial and attacking real teachers. Real teachers are not obvious to the unenlightened eye. What is it worth to have the blinder’s removed? In such a case, giri is endless as your life has been changed by the words and actions of the “master.”
There are three basic archetypes of teaching in the Martial Arts and giri accrues to each. 1) The Technician teaches skills, usually by rote, and seeks perfection of techniques in self and student as standardized by the lineage. 2.) The Artist teaches techniques by feeling, but has the technical expertise to make it work. S/he customizes the lineage techniques to fit the student. 3.) The Sage teaches the techniques, art, principles, philosophy, history, and strategy. Essentially, the sage teaches a do or way of life.
Although these three strategies are almost universal, they may draw on one or more styles in their teaching. The style common to the technician begins with a good base, considered to be the essential knowledge or starting point of a square or block. The student is expected to fill in the other corners.
The crazy wisdom instructors, usually Taoist in viewpoint, believe the student’s personality must be destroyed so they will be born again and learn humility. Their style is to inflate the student’s weakness until they recognize it or, if a student is prideful of their athleticism, to take it away by injuring the student so they will learn without it and so forth. If the student keeps coming back, they must want the lineage knowledge.
I do what is sometimes called “Grandmother Zen” where the instructor’s strategy is total acceptance or “amai” with the student and teaching openly. The student’s role is to do the work. The instructor’s role is to show the student how to achieve excellence.
Examples of giri can be the savateur who punched a beginner after warning him three times to address the instructor by his title, not his first name, the dojo maintainers who take care of the training hall for the master, the deshi who anticipates the unspoken needs of the master, and those who understand that their own actions reflect on the teacher and act accordingly in all situations. An easy way to study giri is to watch some Kurasowa movies like “Seven Samurai” or “Ran.”
As I was writing the above article, some of my students were discussing giri on our dan list. I received the following email from Rose Smith, Sima of Hoshin Australia. Her message speaks for itself in addressing everyday giri to the master, students and self. Take it away Rose.
hmmm, if that seemed like screaming, you’re right. It was.
You guys are gorgeous, you’re all so intellectual, but I cannot handle one more dissertation on GIRI.
All this intellectualizing misses the point, so I’m going to explain it as only a female can (long windedly)
Have you ever been grateful for something someone has done for you? Have you ever been blown away by a teacher or lecturer at school or Uni – so much so you worked ten times harder for them? Have you ever done something to please someone else even though it was not something you wanted to do?
This, then, is Giri. Oh, I know Giri is a lot more complicated than that, but this is the western explanation. Giri means bringing your Soke to your country even though it means you are still paying off the debt 2 years later (that was a joke – kind of!!) Giri means doing exactly as your teacher says, even if you don’t like it. We westerners have missed a fantastic tradition – but we have our own versions of it, in scouts, in clubs, in schools etc. Male buddies are great examples of giri.. stuff you do for your mates is usually stuff you’d never tell anyone else – and what about parent Giri —- my goodness we must all have masters degrees in parent giri.
So what makes Giri with a martial art different – I guess it is the submission to authority – like being in the army, but you can leave anytime. Personal pride in your commitment to your giri keeps you there.
What do you get out of Giri? At first seemingly nothing………. a lot of chores and no you cants …………….. But what you really get is an example of a loving relationship between teacher and student. You will have this one day with your students if you have allowed yourself to experience it with your teacher.
I will leave you with some examples of Giri that I know of.
1) asking a dreggy student to give up drugs because sensei does not approve. 2 years later he is a probationary Blue belt, holds a gold belt and studies philosophy and Egyptology.
2) asking students here to cough up money for the Hoshin bursary fund. We can afford to buy uniforms for our underprivileged students
3)giving every red belt a challenge to accept and complete – some of them very difficult, like quitting smoking. We have an 85% success rate first time.
What these things instill in the students is a sense of love for their sensei(s) All our guys troop along to each other’s “big events” and call on each other to see what they can do to improve each others training. They bring Geoff cake or fruit (god what a guts) and little pressies. They come and mow the lawn (sometimes) and can always be relied upon to help dig pits for firewalks or pick up my dogs gargantuan poos from the yard.
What they get is Sensei coming to the rescue at 3am when they call from the party and say “help me I’m in deep shit” and sensei turns up and removes student from the beginnings of a brawl, takes him/her home, says nothing when they vomit all over the shower floor and then puts them to bed…. in return we get……………….
Are you beginning to get the REAL as opposed to intellectual picture????
I love you guys, so typing this bloody email at 3am in a room that is about 2 degrees warmer than my freezer is a GREAT example of giri. I’m going to go and show sensei some giri towards myself by allowing him to warm my freezing hands and feet on his nice, warm self.”
Rose and Geoff understand giri. They live it and it’s an honor to have them in my organization. I hope this article helps students in America to understand some of the odd behavior that they sometimes try to figure out and to begin to show the integrity that was mandatory in ancient budo and the western military traditions. Much of this has been lost in the rush to turn out quantity rather than quality. The latter takes time and giri while the former takes (and makes) money.