Ritual in the Martial Arts
by Jack Bieler

Part 1 - Function

All martial arts include an element of ritual. These rituals may be local to a particular dojo, or handed down within a ryu (stream or school of martial arts) from centuries before. Ritual binds together a group with common conventions and creates fellowship and identity among the members.

Everything you do regularly is a ritual, including your training. Some rituals happen before, after and outside of practice. These framing rituals may be formal bowing and clapping, meditation, or even housekeeping and gardening around the dojo. You may not even be aware that what you do is a ritual, but it has its effect on your spirit.

For discussion I'll focus on Iaido, the art of the sword, because the elements of ritual are strong and somewhat uniform. Rituals differ greatly in different styles of Aikido. The "what, why and how" of ritual function apply to everyone.

Functions of Ritual in Iaido

Iaido is one of the most highly ritualized martial arts. In fact, the swordsman who introduced the formal seated practice techniques to Iaido had studied a school of etiquette called Ogasawara-ryu. This basic practice set was adapted from the more military techniques prior to his influence, so that court samurai could still practice in the post-war era, during the imposed peace of the Tokugawa period (1600 to about 1850.) Even the Ogasawara-ryu etiquette itself was deadly serious. Its main function was not table manners, but using ritual to interact with peers and superiors without getting killed in an era of honor and court intrigue. So this influence is not entirely unrelated to Iaido, which developed as a noble dueling art in the same era.

There are six main ways that ritual performs crucial functions in Iaido:

(1) Ritual is used functionally to enforce mindfulness of details. Since there are myriad details to learn and abide by, practitioners must constantly monitor what they are doing. This forces them to think about and concentrate on each movement and each moment.

Beginning and ending practice with ritual creates a different, special mental space in which to practice. It separates you from the mundane concerns of life, and allows you to focus on the work you are doing. Ideally, the mental state goes with you out of the dojo, and bowing in simply reminds and reinforces.

(2) Ritual is used as a preservative to perpetuate the form of the art. Since everything is formally proscribed, there is only one correct way for any given school. All the practitioners will do things the same way, and pass that to their students. Otherwise, individual habits and preferences would run rampant and the original ideas would be lost.

The formal movements of Iaido contain alternate applications encoded within them. Thus, as you practice what appears to be a simple form, you are also learning variations that are not practiced explicitly. If the simple form is "optimized" to more clearly train the surface meaning, often the deep application is lost. So the ritualized static nature of the art preserves these deep meanings.

(3) The didactic function of ritual is to mould the practitioner to the art. You should not change Iaido; it should change you. It is a yoga, a "yoke", which forms you physically and mentally. Adhering to repetitive motions and mindsets burns them into your body and personality.

(4) Ritual is used to promote safety in practice, to prevent injury to yourself or your partner. You cannot safely handle a razor-sharp cutting blade in a cavalier manner. You will lose fingers. Being a limited set of proper movements at the proper times, the ritual protects practitioners from carelessness. As far as partners, it makes sure that everyone does only what is expected, so it prevents random movements that might endanger fellow classmates. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing at any given time. Everyone's mindfulness contributes to this function as well.

(5) There is another preparatory function of ritual, which is to prevent erosion of awareness (sakki and zanshin). Training is artificial, but you must prepare for a real enemy. As an example, when you hand a weapon to your partner in practice, it is done in a proscribed ritual manner. The reason is that you are developing powerful subconscious responses geared to combat. You do not want to get used to handing over your weapon thoughtlessly. You do not want to accept a weapon from someone thoughtlessly. There may be treachery involved, but it is mainly to remember this is serious business. You must have a way of distinguishing at a subconscious level that you are not in a combat situation at the time. So techniques are not over when you defeat your opponent. You must scale back down to a non-combative mental state, which is done by means of careful ritual.

This is a big problem in modern training. When police officers practice gun take-aways, their repetitive practice includes handing the gun back to their partner. This is negative skills transfer, and an undesired side effect is that every so often an officer in the field automatically hands a weapon back to a suspect. The ritual is used to alter the mindset into a completely different frame in which it is permissible to violate your defensive training.

(6) Lastly the obvious, denotative function of ritual on the face of it is to foster respect for self, partners, the art and society. Everything in traditional Japanese culture is an expression of Shinto, the way of the divine spirits. The rituals objectively honor the gods who must be acknowledged to provide success and safety in any endeavor. As part of a functioning ritual, you become part of the divine system that supports all of society. You are elevated by it, since you support and give continuity to the culture that has been handed down to you. Even as Americans, we honor the Japanese way and receive its socializing influence. Your training partners are respected as divine, the art itself is divine, and by recognizing this you activate the divine spark within.

Daruma in the Details

Rituals in the martial arts are done with the greatest care and attention to detail. Sloppiness is the opposite of all these goals. Even the most cavalierly mannered teachers have certain areas in which they are meticulously precise, and insist on perfect execution and attention to this detail or that. Some will emphasize certain areas, or none at all.

In America we tend to be attracted to the romantic and foreign mystique of the rituals in martial arts, whereas in Japan the rituals are taken for granted. Consciously or not, doing the actions has meaning and shapes your personality. Whether your practice eschews ritual or revels in it, it is present. The intensity of your involvement with the details will determine how many of the functions of ritual are active in your practice

Part 2 - Practice

The most familiar ritual to the observer of a Japanese martial art is the bowing at the beginning and end of practice. Our discussion of ritual focuses on Iaido, the art of the Japanese sword. In Iaido, every part of these complicated sequences has at least one specific meaning and purpose.

Starting Practice

The ritual mindset begins when you walk in the door and bow. Donning the obi and hakama (belt and traditional "kulats") is an act of preparation and is also part of the ritual. We are relaxed and talkative in the dressing room, but everyone is going through his or her habits and entering the mindset of shugyo, which means 'serious training'.

After bowing onto the dojo floor, we mill about until sensei calls attention. The students line up in order of seniority, which here means first entry into the dojo. The senior student is at the far right, furthest from the door, and beginners are symbolically closer to the door. The shomen, or front face of the dojo, is on the left as you enter to allow this arrangement. Following sensei's lead, the sword is reversed from the left hip to being held in the right hand in such a way that it cannot be easily drawn. We face the shomen and bow as a group at sensei's command. The bow here is about 60 degrees, and all bows are done with straight back and neck.

Next we return the sword to our left hips. At sensei's gesture, we sit in seiza, the formal Japanese polite sitting position. Proper seiza takes practice, and of course there is a correct sequence of movements and posture. We place the sword vertically in front of us to change hands, and gently lay it on our right hand side as we do a kneeling formal bow, to the sensei or to our partners depending on the situation. Once again, having the sword at the right makes it difficult to draw, so you have a situation of (1) you can better trust an unarmed man, and (2) you are deliberately removing yourself from combat mode. In standing situation, this bow is about 45 degrees, since this is to a human rather than to the kami (divine).

The next bow is to the sword itself. We lay the sword horizontally on the floor in front of us, and perform the kneeling bow to the weapon. Standing, this bow is only about 30 degrees. Why do we bow to the sword? Divine spirit of the samurai aside, this is to establish our respect for the danger and to realize exactly what we are doing. We are practicing how to kill another human being. Any justification aside, this is a horrible situation. Of course we posit duty and defense, but it is the most serious thing we may have to do as human beings, ending another life. It is easy to forget this. What makes us human is our conscience, the knowledge of what killing is. We must have a serious, often religious, justification and moral protection from the psychological consequences of such an act. Then again on a practical level, we must remember the sword is a razor-sharp teacher, and any lapse of attention or serious attitude can very quickly result in crippling injury. We are entering into mindfulness out of survival necessity. Loss of focus in Iaido has much more serious consequences than other arts that include internal aspects.

After bowing to the sword, we bring the sword up and place it into our belts, every movement proscribed and monitored by sensei. Girded thus, we are ready to begin martial practice. So as we stand, we are in posture and ready. When we take our places in rows, we are ready. When we watch sensei demonstrate the technique, we are ready. Even though we trust and love our fellow students, we feel every presence around us, our eyes and minds are open, and we are ready.

Making Practice Real

Iaido techniques are practiced as pre-set forms (kata) in which every movement and detail must be performed exactly to precise standards. This reinforces the mindset needed for practice to be effective. Simply doing all the moves correctly is not enough. It is not Iaido.

Awareness is essential to make Iaido, or any martial arts practice real. The Iaido practitioner consciously enters a mental state of alertness and commitment that makes the ritual effective. Techniques start form standing, sitting, or sitting uncomfortably. They all begin with breathing, to clear and concentrate the mind, preparing for what comes.

In Iaido, you create an imaginary enemy (teki) in your mind. When you feel the enemy approach, the feeling of sakki alerts you, and you begin the technique. Sakki, literally "death feeling," is the instinct that alerts you to impending danger. It mobilizes you to lash out with the sword, to protect yourself or do your duty.

During and after the technique, we practice an expanded awareness called zanshin. It is the complete readiness in action, the focus that remains on the enemy after you have finished him, waiting for any sign of movement or danger. You maintain your posture and focus, while still being open to everything around you. Zanshin means "remaining spirit" or follow-through.

Zanshin is complete open awareness of surroundings, but in the middle of deep focus on details. You must balance these two aspects of mindfulness in practice. Like all practice, this is simulated combat and you must cultivate the mental states to give substance to the simulation.

Transcending Ritual

A 9th dan was demonstrating once, when a tournament official noticed he was wearing his wristwatch, which is a no-no. The official actually walked out onto the floor during a technique to approach the swordsman and remind him (also a big no-no!). In mid-stroke, the swordsman stopped cleanly. It was apparent to everyone that he was completely ready and capable of turning and cutting down the interloper. The official froze and slowly backed away. The swordsman finished his technique smoothly, as if he was never interrupted. The point is that he was at a level where the techniques are no longer rote, where he could have changed to handle any unexpected attack with the same impassivity, efficiency and focus as the predetermined scenario of the form. He was totally aware of his surroundings, despite the quibble of not removing his watch.

This illustrates how the ritualistic aspects of martial activity become invisible to the conscious mind. By making these actions automatic, the mind is freed to observe what is going on around, and also to adapt the automatic responses to the changing situation in the real world. Beginners tend to focus on the activity itself, and adherence to the proper sequence and performance of the ritual. One passes into expert status by forgetting the details and letting the body and subconscious take over these functions, which is what they do best. This lets the mind observe, analyze and judge, which is what it does best. This is the goal of ritual, and of all martial arts.

Part 3 - Spirituality

Americans are sometimes attracted to the martial arts because of their romantic and alien mystique. This mystique is embodied in the rituals that rule every part of the traditional martial art experience. Here I'd like to explore the spiritual aspects that make martial arts so compelling, and perhaps explain why. Once again we will use Iaido, the art of the Japanese sword, as a example.

Respect and Religion

On a quite literal level, when you practice a Japanese martial art you are participating in a Shinto religious ceremony. Some martial arts get rather hung up on that. Modern practice is secular, but every old martial art in Japan traces its descent to a divine spirit or revelation. The emperor is still a deity to the old-timers, and we are all caught up in that heritage. The lowliest janitor in Japan has pride in his work, because he is part of the divine society. Well, every society can be divine if you treat it in that way. For that matter, all societies trace their origin to divine imprimatur; even citizens of the United States are "endowed by their creator" and have benefited from manifest destiny.

So this religious aspect is not far from any of us. Life itself is a sacrament. Ritual has two aspects, public and private, and their functions overlap depending on how seriously you take it. You can perform the public operations as "dues" required to practice the art. You cut yourself off from some of the interior psychological benefits, but the beauty is that most of it works no matter what your attitude is. They are physical actions, and the fact that you keep doing them lets them act on you.

The mere fact of treating what you do as a spiritual observance creates respect for yourself, what you are doing, and the society of which we are all a part. We don't consider the rituals of martial arts to be religious nowadays, but they came from a day when every part of existence was considered spiritual exercises. As I said, even if you are a devout Christian, Jew or Muslim, which are exclusionary religions, if you bow to the sword and bow to your partner and perform the activities in that context, you are acting as a living symbol. The radiance of a symbol lives on its own without need for either belief or conscious understanding for it to be effective and imbue meaning.

Ritual and Meditation

The ritualization of these arts is a form of awareness practice, akin in some ways to meditation, designed to train the practitioner's mind to be more present in the world and more focused on the present moment, rather than constantly thinking about everything else other than what is happening in the present moment. I've often thought that Iaido is a particularly gruesome form of meditation, since the central object is the killing of a human being. You are sitting peacefully, build up from slow to fast to lightning-fast destruction of your enemy, then gradually slow back into impassible serenity.

Iaido differs from Vipassana or Zazen because you are not focusing on body processes or emptying your mind completely, but rather focusing it on your mission. You create a mental image of the enemy, who is exactly your height and size. In fact it *is* you, and in the act of killing your enemy, you are killing yourself, that which is evil in you, or mortal, or attached to life. This has a great psychological effect, eradicating your self, your ego.

The meditative process is filled with mental activity. The exact substance changes as you progress -- first it is the simple mechanical sequence, then fine details, body control, mental imagery, strategy and options, consequences (in stages including morality, horror and resignation), timing, and dynamism. There are even proper times to blink and not blink, since the fabric of the technique must be unbroken once it begins. The body control, mental imagery, and "feeling" become the most important.

There is a concept in Iaido called "metsuke", which is directing your eyes properly. With wrong metsuke, what you are doing is not Iaido. You must "see" what you are doing. I have watched my instructor do techniques in which I "saw" bodies dropping, cut fatally. There are stories of sword masters that made their students practice without a sword until he could tell that the student "saw" his opponent. Then you give him a wooden sword until everybody can see the opponent, at which time he is finally ready for steel. Too often my teachers tell me, "You missed. Your opponent is *here*. You are dead." So the mental imagery is the heart of Iaido.

This is closer to Tibetan directed meditations than to Zen practice. The element of emptying the mind of any *other* considerations and distractions is crucial however. Any instant of wandering mind and you will be dead in the scenario. You will not be doing good Iai and this can be seen easily by a trained eye. You also endanger yourself and your partners since you are daydreaming while swinging a four-foot razor blade. These things make the stakes the highest possible: "looking death in the face". You will really feel the enemy's sword cut you down if you falter. A friend of mine once passed the dull edge of her practice sword across her hand, and she shuddered with the stark realization that a real sword would have taken off her fingers. Some of this is physical reality; some of it is visualization. To the topic, the strict rituals are there to enforce and protect one from these qualities.


Participating in the rituals of a martial art makes you part of a spiritual tradition that goes beyond the dojo and beyond combat. Whether you believe in the religious context or not, you are bowing, you are sitting and breathing, you are acting decisively with your whole spirit. If you hold yourself back from the mental involvement called for, you will cheat yourself of the full benefits of what you are doing. If you are going to practice, do it wholeheartedly, with respect and relaxed dignity. Understand and accept the role you play in your tradition, without obsessing. The rituals of the martial arts are the finger pointing to the moon, not the moon itself.

Copyright 2002 by Jack Bieler