Thursday, July 22, 2010

Loyalty vs. Obligation (Giri)

Giri, or obligation, is a concept often associated to the Japanese martial arts.  It stems from a time when an aspiring martial artist essentially pledged themselves to a martial arts master, in return for their knowledge and instruction.  The student would never dream of leaving his/her master or studying with another.  They felt an obligation, often a burden of obligation, sacrificing their own wants for the happiness of their master.  This is a gross oversimplification of the concept of Giri, of course, but it leads into this discussion.

Modern day warriors often talk about obligation to their teacher.  They regard their understanding of it as a positive thing.  I believe the concepts of loyalty and obligation are often confused.  When most people talk about Giri, I think they are really talking about loyalty (at least here in the West).

I do not feel a sense of obligation to my Sensei but I do feel a powerful sense of loyalty to him.

Interestingly, I am likely more loyal to him because he has always encouraged me to experiment with other martial arts and artists.  He has never once said that Jiu Jitsu is the only martial art I should study or that he is the only one I should learn from.  He knows what he knows, and he knows it well.  If it works for me, he'll provide instruction to me.  If it's not for me, no hard feelings.

Have I shown my loyalty?  From a distance, it might not look like it, but my sense of loyalty runs very deeply.

My Sensei started me on my journey many years ago.  He awoke my love of martial arts which has lasted since then.  I learned from him for several years before I stopped training with him.  This was due to moving, starting a career etc.  Geographically it became impossible for a time.  I trained with several other schools and teachers, often earning several belts.  I enjoyed and benefited from all these experiences.  I've also taught work related self defense to my co-workers.

No matter where I went, the lessons I learned originally always stuck.  My original Jiu Jitsu training always bubbled up to the surface.  This showed me just how deeply the lessons I received had an effect on me, and how an effective teacher could really reach a student.

So how did I show my loyalty?

I always remained true to the lessons I learned.
I never pretended to be an expert or know more than I did.
I strove to find techniques that worked for others, not just for me.
I always insisted the techniques would work in the 'real world'.
I encouraged others to learn all they can from whoever they can.
I kept an open mind.
I respected others.
I learned from everyone.
I tried to be a positive example of a martial artist.
I tried to avoid unnecessary conflict.

Ultimately, I returned to my Sensei and started over.  I like to think this is how I've been loyal to him.

For those years I wasn't training under him?  A friend of mine once joked that I was like a Ronin, a masterless Samurai combing the countryside, searching for a teacher.

In truth, it turns out I was just trying to find my way back home.

I feel no obligation, but I am loyal to the core.


  1. the system, once again, is about circles...

  2. Ties of loyalty are strong. In Nicklaus Suino's book 'Budo Mind and Body' he likens the student/sensei relationship to that of child/parent. He states,'...just as children nearing adulthood must challenge their parents and seek their own role in the world, so must students of the martial arts eventually become complete individuals by seeking independence.'

    He goes on to say, 'While this separation might seem like a severing of the ties of loyalty, and in some cases it may end up actually doing so, it is a ncessary step in the maturation of students...As long as the students remember that nothing in their martial arts careers would have been possible without the guidance of their teachers, they will understand their proper place in the continuing sucession of martial artists.'

    I particularly think this last sentence is important. By the way I've just discovered your blog after you left a comment on mine - I'm really enjoying your posts.