The Exception that Breaks Giri

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The Exception that Breaks Giri

Postby HanshiClayton » Sat Dec 20, 2008 9:06 am

Giri is the “unbreakable bond” between student and master. It is based on the noble idea that you owe your teacher a debt you can never repay. If you think about it, this is true. It takes about a thousand hours of practice to earn your black belt. Your teacher was there with you the whole time. How are you going to pay him back for the time he invested in you? Clearly you owe him something more than just your monthly dues. That's giri.

But some people take it too far. Traditional karate teachers often present giri as an absolute obligation of the student to the master, giving the master enormous authority over the student’s life. This authority is used to justify all kinds of abuse. The abuse may be financial, physical, mental, or even sexual. Does giri mean we are slaves for life? It turns out that the masters didn’t tell us the whole story.

The concept of giri comes directly from Confucianism, a Chinese philosophy that strongly influences Japanese society. We need to examine Confucianism for the rest of the story about giri. The easy way to make such a foray is to look in the Wikipedia.

Confucian Loyalty

The absolute authority of master over student is derived from rén, which is the Confucian standard of humane behavior toward subordinates.

    Confucius ... did not propose that “might makes right”, but that a superior who had received the “Mandate of Heaven” ... should be obeyed because of his moral rectitude.

The master has a “divine right” to rule over us because he has the Mandate of Heaven. We know he has received the Mandate of Heaven because it shows in his obviously moral behavior. Under the Confucian system, a master who behaves badly does not have the Mandate... he has no right to rule. A bad master cannot participate in giri.

    Confucius’ concept of humaneness (rén) is probably best expressed in the Confucian version of the Golden Rule phrased in the negative: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you”.

    Rén also has a political dimension. If the ruler lacks rén, Confucianism holds, it will be difficult if not impossible for his subjects to behave humanely. Rén is the basis of Confucian political theory: it presupposes an autocratic ruler, exhorted to refrain from acting inhumanely towards his subjects. An inhumane ruler runs the risk of losing the “Mandate of Heaven”, the right to rule. Such a mandateless ruler need not be obeyed. But a ruler who reigns humanely and takes care of the people is to be obeyed strictly, for the benevolence of his dominion shows that he has been mandated by heaven.
    [Emphasis added. BDC]

You can tell if your master has the legitimate “Mandate of Heaven” by examining how he behaves. What should we look for? Confucianism spells that out pretty clearly.

    The term "Junzi" is a term crucial to classical Confucianism. [It refers to] one who “combines the qualities of saint, scholar, and gentleman” ... A hereditary elitism was bound up with the concept, and gentlemen were expected to act as moral guides to the rest of society. They were to:
    * cultivate themselves morally;
    * participate in the correct performance of ritual;
    * show filial piety and loyalty where these are due; and
    * cultivate humaneness.

That’s the description of a morally-correct master. It sounds a lot like Funakoshi, doesn’t it?

    The opposite of the Junzi was the Xiaoren, literally “small person” or “petty person.” Like English “small”, the word in this context in Chinese can mean petty in mind and heart, narrowly self-interested, greedy, superficial, and materialistic.

So if a man is petty, selfish, greedy, superficial and materialistic, he doesn’t have the Mandate of Heaven, and is not worthy of giri. This reminds me of some other karate masters I have encountered, like the teacher who charges $1000 for a shodan certificate, or another who sold menkyo certificates for $5000.

But the point is this: giri is a two-way relationship. It is not just the student who is bound by the obligation. The master must live a righteous life in order to be worthy. If a master lacks the Mandate of Heaven, we are under no obligation to serve him. In fact, we have an obligation to repudiate him and walk away. To do otherwise is to compromise our own morality. A good master cannot serve a bad one.

If you master nurtures you, you are obliged to be loyal. If he abuses you, you are obliged to depart. It's that simple.

But how does a good master lose the Mandate of Heaven? It usually happens about the time his best students become sandans.

Karate students eventually grow up and move out, just like teenagers do. It is all right to make your shodans and nidans teach classes without pay because they are learning how to teach. When they become sandans, however, this practice must stop. Sandans are colleagues, not slaves. Sandans must be paid when they teach. If your school can't support another teacher, then you are obliged to help the sandan set up his own school. Helping him get started is a part of your giri to the student. This is how you build a family of loyal followers.

It is not okay to have a sandan teaching your classes while you pocket the cash. If you let that happen, bad feelings will follow. You will lose the Mandate of Heaven. Your good student will become a bitter enemy. I have seen this happen again and again. It happens because we understand the student's side of the obligation, but not the master's.

And there is one way to repay the debt. If you would honor your master, then you must follow in his footsteps. Each shodan you graduate is a substantial payment on the debt.
Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D.
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