Thursday, January 20, 2011

Civility in Wake of Tucson Shootings: Shotokan Wisdom

In the wake of the Tucson shootings, the word civility continues to come up often. We'll never know whether greater civility in society would have prevented the tragic shootings which left six people dead, and injured 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

But we do know from our own day-to-day experience that greater civility would make our lives less tense, and increase safety and security within our communities. I've been reflecting on this notion of civility. Civility in essence is all about how we treat each other - a code of conduct, if you will.

As a boy I often read about knights and the good fight for justice and all that was honorable. Authors often mentioned the code of chivalry, which was followed by those righteous knights. Today, we sometimes hear it said that "chivalry is dead," and who can disagree with that?

But this morning, I realized that's just not true. Chivalry is not dead. There are many men, women, and youths today who very consciously pledge themselves to a code of civility, which is reflective of the chivalry of old.

These are the people who train in Shotokan Karate, a Japanese martial art. And here is what they each affirm in a spirited voice at the end of every training session:
  1. Seek perfection of character!
  2. Be faithful!
  3. Endeavor to excel!
  4. Respect others!
  5. Refrain from violent behavior!
Though these words are spoken in unison at the end of each training session, they are embodied by the instructors and students throughout the whole session. And it is made very clear that these words are to be our code at home, at work, in our political debates, and on the street - in other words wherever we are.

So perhaps you look at this five-point code, known in Japanese as the dojo kun, and think, "What's the big deal? It's just basic common sense."

The problem, of course, is common sense isn't nearly as common as the term suggests. Sometimes, when common sense, such as the dojo kun, is most needed, that's when it's the least likely to be found.

Like the codes of chivalry followed by the hero knights in our story books as kids, the dojo kun comes from a martial tradition. But it's a martial tradition which, through the development of modern karate, has been shaped to meet today's needs. As such it can be taught to the very youngest, as well as to the oldest, members of society.

If, as I believe, we'll spend more time in 2011 discussing notions of civility and how we can get along better in a much conflicted and hostile world,  I think we'll find most codes of civility we look at are deceptively simple. That could certainly be said of the dojo kun of Shotokan.

What is less simple, less clear, is how we choose to learn and apply these codes in ways which will enhance relations among people, and lead to greater harmony and happiness at every level of society.

And what may be equally difficult for some to believe, is that learning and applying such a simple code as the dojo kun is the work of a life time.


  1. The code you cite is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. It is highly individualistic and does not seem to recognize the interconnectedness of all beings. Here are some additional traits/values/practices that go beyond civility and the dojo kun:

    1. Empathise
    2. Co-operate
    3. Look for opportunities to be of service
    4. Seek to understand the interconnectedness of all beings
    5. Beware of lists :-)

  2. This is all really great. I am endeavoring to train myself in all of these things. It has been a journey I have only just started but it has been awesome so far.

  3. I appreciate your comments. Thank you.