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Date: Aug 22, 2010
By Bruce D. Clayton, PHD.
Kyoshi, Shotokan Karate

To: Sanchin Bushi Sensei’s

We need to spend a moment considering giri, the moral debt that the student owes to the teacher.

1 Giri is the “unpayable debt.”  This indebtedness is profound.  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 sense of obligation is giri!

2. This concept of giri comes directly from Confucianism, a Chinese philosophy that strongly influences Japanese society.  Some karate teachers explain giri as an absolute obligation of the student to the teacher, giving the teacher enormous control over the student’s life.  This isn’t quite right, and it has led to some very ugly abuses in the name of giri.  These abuses occur because we were not told the whole story about giri.

3. Giri is a demanding two-way relationship.  The student is expected to obey the master because the master’s wisdom and benevolence guide the student to a better life.  This is called “having the Mandate of Heaven.”  You can tell whether the master has the Mandate of Heaven by examining how he behaves.  The mandate is bestowed on those who cultivate themselves morally, who participate in correct performance of ritual, who show filial piety and respect to their elders, and who practice benevolence and humaneness to their subjects.  We are obliged to be loyal to this man because of his obvious moral rectitude.  A student who forsakes such a master is morally bankrupt.  He is a thief in the night and should be treated like one.

4. But there is another side to giri.  A master can lose the Mandate.  If you have been in the martial arts for any length of time, you have seen this happen.  The master becomes narrow, petty and self-centered.  He exploits and manipulates his students instead of nurturing them.  He becomes vindictive, suspicious and angry.  He destroys the love and loyalty that he once earned.

5. According, to Confucius, a master who has lost the Mandate of Heaven is not worthy of giri.  His abuses cancel all debts owed to him.  If a teacher loses the Mandate of Heaven, we are under no further obligation to serve him.   In fact master nurtures you; you are obliged to be loyal.  If he abuses you, you are obliged to depart.  It’s that simple.

6. The “unpayable debt” is not really unpayable.  To honor your giri, you must follow in your teacher’s footsteps.  Set up your own school, spend the thousand hours beside your beginners, and take the students to your teacher for their Shodan tests.  Each new Shodan is a good-faith payment on the debt.  (This paragraph is only an example, with the Martial Arts, giri has many ways of being paid and received and is a two way street).

7. This is how karate passes from one generation to the next.  I thank all of my students for understanding this without being told.  But for future students as we continue in life’s personal goals, giri is still applicable to everyday life and we must be the example! 

(Paragraph 7, Hanshi Ramirez)