Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Religious Objections In The Dojo

This blog post is my opinion based on my experiences in a traditional dojo and my personal religious upbringing. I am a practicing Catholic who attends church on Sunday. My daughter attends parochial school. My husband was born to a Greek Orthodox father and Lutheran mother. The students in our dojo practice a wide range of religious traditions.

A new family, a father and two children, came to the dojo for their first class. My husband Tom taught class. I was not in the dojo because I took our daughter to the doctor for a sinus infection. When I arrived back home, I stopped by the dojo to inquire about the new students. I asked how class went and the black belts in the room shook their head and said, "Not good".

I was surprised to hear there was a problem because our dojo was referred by friends of the new family. During the course of the class, my husband explained basic dojo etiquette. We bow before entering and leaving the training area. At the beginning and end of class, we bow to the instructor and to the shinza.

The new student objected to bowing for religious reasons.

Bow - to bend the knee or body or incline the head, as in reverence, submission, salutation, recognition or acknowledgement.

My husband explained we bow as a sign of respect. The students bow to the instructors to thank them for teaching. The teacher will bow to the students to thank them for participating in class. We bow to the shinza to pay respect to those who have trained before us.

Everyone has the right to their beliefs. Sadly, I do not think the new family will be back.

After searching for articles regarding martial arts and religion, I share with you the following links:

In August 2007, John Vesia explained in his post Losing My Religion:

...that while Taoism and Zen are the philosophical foundations that most Asian martial arts are built upon, they are not theistic religions as we understand them in the West. Bowing, meditation, and other forms of dojo etiquette could be missconstrued as paganism to an outsider, but they're just part of the stock ritual that exists at most schools.

The Accidental Aikidoist wrote a commentary reacting to this post which argues that Christians should not practice the martial arts. Accidental Aikidoist states:

I find this funny, funny that this man has gone to great lengths to try and prove that something is “evil” of which he has no knowledge or experience of the arts. I will speak for myself when I say that experience is a virtue that is prized by many.

Please feel free to comment and remember everyone has the right to their own religious beliefs. Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, I have temporarily enabled comment moderation.


Ariel said...

My school is located in a church to begin with, and everyone knows that when they walk into the dojang, it's Tae Kwon Do, but we teach from a Christian viewpoint.

With that said, my instructors and I have had to deal with this issue about bowing before with concerned parents. What your husband told the new students is exactly what we try to explain. Bowing is not a sign of worship or subservience, it's about respect and the mindset that "I'm coming here to learn. I'm not going to waste time by playing around. I'm serious about being here."

Anonymous said...

If you look back to the original intent of the Eastern/Asian bow, Western handshake or waving "hello", they all have the same meaning. It means that you have nothing to hide and have no ill intent.

By bowing, you're placing your head/neck into a position that can be easily split by a sword. That's not a desired position for someone with ill intent in mind.

A handshake shows that you have nothing in your hand because the other person has your hand. Also, in Asia, most people shake with BOTH hands for this very reason. I deal with this all the time because my wife if Vietnamese.

The native American hand-high greeting was again to show that there was no weapon.

Try to explain the original purpose of the bow or other greeting method and things begin to make more sense and they have little or no religious implications at all.

Eastern religions have expanded the meaning of these greetings but the core meaning has nothing to do with religion.

sandman said...

Ive never run into this kind of problem in the dojo myself, but I do recall one school teacher when I was in high school who gave me a hard time about it when he heard that I was studying karate. He just wouldn't accept that the bowing is simply a gesture of respect - for him it was just unacceptable. I always found that wierd...

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the link! And if you don't mind at all I will be linking your site from mine.

I also responded to your comment on my site.

Anonymous said...

Since we are on religion, I wanted to ask what was your experience like going into martial arts while being a practicing Catholic (excuse me if I'm wrong).

Was there any conflict between your training and your religion (if any)? Is that conflict on going or has it subsided?

Michele said...

Thank you for your comments and adding to the discussion.

In response to TAA's question, I have not experienced a conflict between being Catholic and a practitioner of Okinawa Kenpo.

You might be interested to read Charles Goodin's article on Catholic Karate.

Sue C said...

We've not personally experienced any problems based on religion in our dojo. We have a family of muslims that attend regularly. They must be quite devout muslims because the daughter (about 11yrs) keeps her head covered during training. However, they have no objection to bowing. I don't know if the objection to bowing is more a Christian thing?

As an aside, there was a big fuss made in our locality recently when the local church (C of E) banned a pensioner's tai chi club from using their church hall, based on religious objections!

Narda said...

I find it odd that folks would use religion, and point to bowing/respect, rather than the 'practice violence' they are engaged in.

My sister has taken an interest in martial arts, and after checking out a few wushu storefronts, decided to attend our Goju (karate) class last night. I don't think she will be back, and it might be based in her 'religion'. Oh...she had no problem with bowing for respect, and she enjoyed learning 'pretty' kata. It was the look of realization on her face, after we showed her what was going on in those katas (arm breaks, neck cranks, throws, back and leg breaks, etc.)...that I think changed her mind.

'That's not very nice.'

Felicia said...

It's never really been a problem where I train, but I have seen the look on the faces of some of the parents during rei at the end of class and when we remind students to bow upon entering. At least once a month at the Saturday class I help teach, I take a few seconds to explain to the class what the bows are all about and why we do them, but I'm mostly talking to the parents in the back of the room who seem to be wondering what the heck we're mumbling about.

There's a link on bowing I have bookmarked (somewhere - as of course I can't seem to put my hands on now) written by a minister that sheds some light on it from a "man of the cloth's perspective. I'll search my other computer and post it if I find it.

Nice post, Michele...

caterina said...

Everyone’s religious point of view will be different, but for myself, it never occurred to me to worry about bowing. I see nothing wrong with indicating respect for my instructors and training partners by means of a traditional gesture. It has, however, occurred to me to worry about whether it is really OK to learn how to hurt someone else. But “there are no first moves in karate,” and my faith tradition (as I understand it) allows for the possibility of legitimate self-defense. For my children, I think it has been beneficial to their character formation to have the knowledge of how to defend themselves--paired with very strict training never to use this knowledge for a less than compelling reason. And I think our specific school strikes the right balance of teaching us how to inflict fight-stopping injuries without glorifying violence. Our headmaster periodically remarks, “If you ever have to actually hurt someone, it should make you sick to your stomach.” To me, that has the ring of reality.

Journeyman said...

Interesting stuff in this discussion. I agree that the reasons behind bowing should be explained to students and visitors, but I feel there is very little else you can do other than that.

I don't think the bow is a sign of subservience to anyone nor do I think it indicates allegiance to any religion or religious belief. A fist bump or a high five could just as easily be used as a sign of respect and it would then be appropriate for all students to do that. It would be rude not to do so.

People have the right to believe and practice any religion they wish, but I think it's sad that someone could miss out on the arts over something like this.

Once it's been explained, the baggage lies not with the bow.

John Vesia said...

First of all thanks for the link, Michele. Interesting post and discussion. Narda said something that caught my eye:

I find it odd that folks would use religion, and point to bowing/respect, rather than the 'practice violence' they are engaged in.

The fear of bowing/respect thing might have roots to a misconstruing of one of the Ten Commandments (thou shalt not worship other gods). As far as the practice of violence, ancient scripture taken from almost all of the world's monotheisms actually advocate violence for the most inane reasons.

Meg said...

Whenever our school has had new students, the instructors explain that the bow is a form of respect for our Grandmaster, and for those he learned from. It is explained that you don't jump in and do something without thanking someone for something, so the bow in is a way of thanking your instructors at the beginning of class for being there to teach you, and at the end of class, for their time.
Not once have I heard anyone say that it's anything more than a sign of respect. Also, we practice a moment of "Muk nyum" at the beginning and end of class, which is a time of brief meditation. It's meant to allow you to release the outside influences of the day so that you can concentrate on your training. Likewise, at the end of class, it's meant to allow you to reflect on your training, to focus on what you've learned.

It goes along with addressing someone as "sir" or "ma'am" to me. It's a sign of respect and honor that I can give to my instructors.

Charles Indelicato said...

This is a very interesting discussion. In my 6 years of training I never encountered anyone objecting to bow in the dojang.

I am a practicing Catholic, and nothing in my education has ever hinted bowing (in the sense of respect or greeting) runs afoul of the Commandments.

In my mind, it is no different than signing an e-mail (or post) with kyung nae.

Hawk said...

I have not had the displeasure of encountering such an experience as a dojo cho. However, I am not unfamiliar with the situation you shared. I remember a fellow aikido student who had some reservations with such protocols. Once it was explained that our bowing and other such activities, was nothing more than preserving tradition and the history of our art, he reconsidered and remained a student. It should be mentioned he is a Christian man and remains steadfast in his studies.

While we are on the subject, the very principles we teach in aikido, kenpo and other martial arts systems can be related on some level to the myriad of teachings from the Bible, the Koran, and even the Tora to name several.

Religious beliefs not withstanding, it amazes me how people can walk through life with blinders. Yet they do!

A great post! Thanks for the information and the shared links.

Mata ne...

Kenneth said...

It' sad that people could get so narrow or even close-minded when it comes to their religion. They would react and talk of things they don't have comprehension.

Chris said...

I can empathize with a new student who doesn't want to bow in the direction of a kamidana, or towards a poster written in a language they cannot understand.

I personally would find it acceptable for those students to say "Thank You" or "Respect" loudly instead of bowing with everyone else.

After a few weeks of sounding foolish they will probably start bowing of their own volition, and if not, who cares.

jc said...

i witnessed a similar occurance when i went to an unfamiliar class in my childhood... the Sensei, i think, assumed that the etiquette was self-explanatory and the bowing etc. became a point of misunderstanding for a eleven-year-old..... hardly his fault.

Michele said...

Thank you for adding to the discussion and sharing your experiences!

Carmen Sognonvi said...

We've experienced similar reactions a few times from students who weren't comfortable with bowing for religious reasons.

I've seen some competitors at karate tournaments who, instead of bowing, make a gesture of respect by putting their hand over their heart, sort of the way you do when you say the pledge of allegiance.

The way you handle this will of course, depend on how you run things at your school. But at our school, as long as there is some kind of gesture made to show respect, it's fine by us.

And as a few of the commenters have pointed out, after a while students may realize that bowing is not a sign of subservience to any person or organization, so they may decide that bowing works for them after all.

Michele said...

Hi Carmen: Thank you for commenting and visiting my blog.

I am happy to report that the new students returned to the dojo this week!

SenseiMattKlein said...

Thought-provoking post. I would be interested in hearing the thoughts of various clergy from religions worldwide on this. At some schools we have Muslim students, so I would be interested in hearing from them as to whether this is a problem.

Kicksboxes Rick said...

Wow! This is a really cool discussion. I'm actually surprised that people have had religious objections concerning bowing over say the concept of 'chi' energy. (Not to mention martial violence).

Has anyone had a student/parent object to the concept of using 'chi' energy to direct a technique... or is that something that you just don't teach?



Brett said...

The freedom of religion is likely the most important freedom we have in this nation.

That said, were it my Dojo, I would not train a student that refused to bow. It spits in the face of tradition and respect of which the arts are founded.

Anonymous said...

My son started learning in a local Dojo two weeks ago. As a devout Christian, the whole bowing thing really didn't set well with me. I decided to do some research into what the reasons behind it are. After reading explinations on three sites before this one, I have no issue with it whatsoever. In fact, learning what it represents and the benefits behind it has me thinking I'd like to begin learning in the local Dojo myself, as I could use some of the disiplines taught myself. Thanks for taking the time to explain to us parents on the sidelines.

Dr. J said...

I've been involved with the martial arts for many years! I started in college. When I took my first karate class we bowed and I've been bowing ever since :-) I never questioned it, I just did it and over time all the good reasons for it became apparent to me.

All this sort of reminds me of the story where the student is told by the master that it will take five years to become a black belt. The student responds that if I work really hard and dedicate myself how long then? Ten years is the master's reply!