by Shihan Brent H. Baker

I was having a conversation with some of my karate students the other day, and the topic of expectations came up. I had asked them, “Do you know what my expectations of you are?” Well, there was some shuffling of feet and, to their credit, they did offer some tentative thoughts in answer to my question. And it may very well be that I had gotten an expression on my face that showed some disappointment in the fact that they were having trouble answering the question, because one of them said, “Shihan, I don’t think you’ve ever told us what you expect from us.”

My first thought, hearing this, was that I was certain that I had told them what my expectations were, and maybe they just hadn’t been listening very well. (Any of you adults reading this, if you deal with kids or teenagers in any capacity, I’m sure you’re had this very same thought. Repeatedly.) But, as I thought about it, I realized that sometimes the message doesn’t come across the way I expect it to. That’s why it’s important to ask the question in the first place. So I’d like to take a few lines here to touch on the highlights of our conversation.

The Dojo Kun

The Dojo Kun is a good place to start whenever we talk about what a martial arts instructor expects from his or her students. It is, basically, a set of ideals that we try to live up to. The Dojo Kun is a formula for learning to live life properly, with integrity and respect. It actually has less to do with actual karate than with how to conduct oneself inside and outside of the dojo.

1. To Strive for the Perfection of Character.

Now, we all know that nobody’s perfect. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to be the best person we can be. This first line of the creed is about trying to be a good person, to make good choices in life, and to make the world around us a little better. Sometimes we’re going to mess up, but it’s the attempt that counts.

1. To Defend the Path of Truth.

Honesty is the best policy – with others and with yourself. How honest you are with others determines how much they trust and respect you. It’s not always easy to be honest, especially after making a mistake, but trust and respect can only be earned by taking responsibility for your words and actions. How honest you are with yourself determines if and when you reach your goals in life. Its important to set realistic goals, and then to be honest with yourself about the amount of effort you’re putting into reaching those goals. And that leads us to…

1. To Foster the Spirit of Effort.

There will always be times in life when your goals seem too far away, too difficult to reach. At those times, it can be very tempting to take the easy way out and simply give up on your goals. Many people do this – in fact, less than 2% of everyone who starts studying karate will stay in long enough to earn their black belt. Now, there are many reasons why someone would quit training; some are fair reasons, many are not. Whatever the case may be, none of those people who dropped out will ever know if they could have earned their black belt. And this is a good rule for everything in life: you’ll never know what you can do, unless you try.

1. To Honor the Principles of Etiquette.

How we treat people is a major part of how others see us. “Treat others as you would have them treat you.” This is an old saying, but it is just as true today as when it was first written. And etiquette isn’t just about saying “please” and “thank you” – although you might be surprised to know just how much those simple words affect the way people look at you. Etiquette is also about listening to and respecting someone’s opinion, even when you don’t agree with it. It’s about giving a hand to someone who needs help, or encouragement to someone who is frustrated. And, especially in the dojo, it’s about setting a good example for those who are younger than you or who hold a lower rank than you do.

1. To Guard against Impetuous Courage.

Courage is a good thing, right? It takes courage to stand up for what you believe in, or to take responsibility for your actions. It certainly takes courage to keep trying, even when your goals seem impossible to reach. The key to this line of the Dojo Kun is the word “impetuous.” The dictionary defines impetuous as having “sudden and forceful emotion” or “violent force.” Sometimes, when we’re under stress, we let our emotions – anger, fear, frustration, anxiety, embarrassment, etc. – control our actions. When that happens, we’ve stopped thinking about the situation, and we lose the ability to make good decisions. And that is when we get ourselves into trouble.

Life is always challenging us. Sometimes we respond well to the challenge, and sometimes we don’t. The Dojo Kun gives us a set of guidelines, all equally important, for meeting those challenges. It does not, however, go into great detail about our karate training and when it is appropriate to use our karate. For that, we have…

The Code of Ethics

The purpose of the Code of Ethics is to define how we should respond to a potentially violent situation – especially one where we may need to use our karate to defend ourselves. It goes like this:

Contain rather than hurt.
Hurt rather than injure.
Injure rather than maim.
Maim rather than kill.
Kill rather than be killed.

Imagine that each line of the Code of Ethics represents a line drawn in the sand. Our responsibility, as martial artists, is not to cross any more lines than we have to. So, if someone attacks me and I can contain their attack without hurting them – perhaps by simply blocking their punches – then there is no need for me to actually hurt them. If I try that, and they are still attacking me, then I may move to the next level by pushing them down or knocking the wind out of them. Again, here, it is my responsibility to use as little karate as possible in order to get out of danger. If I can stop someone from hurting me by knocking the wind out of them and then leaving, then there is no need for me to break their arm. That would be excessive force, and I would be just as wrong as the person who attacked me.

At the same time, there is an unspoken “0th” line that we could put at the very beginning of the Code of Ethics. It might go something like “First, don’t let the situation become violent.” If I see that someone is becoming aggressive, then my best response is to either calm things down or leave. The best way to win a fight is to not let the fight start in the first place. And, remember, the person who starts the fight may not be the one who throws the first punch – sometimes fights are started by words and gestures long before a punch is thrown. And that brings us to…

The Dojo Rules

There are two major rules in our dojo. Violation of either of these would result in a student losing their rank and their ability to continue training in our dojo. These are simply:

Karate is for defensive purposes only.

Karate students do not start fights. They do not go looking for trouble. They don’t use their karate to bully or hurt others. That’s not what karate is all about. Karate is about improving yourself – physically, mentally, and emotionally. The respect, focus, etiquette, and self-esteem that we learn inside the dojo are with us outside the dojo and can help us in our everyday lives. The karate techniques, however, are for inside the dojo or for those rare occasions when we need to protect ourselves.

Students may not teach others what they have learned without theĀ approval and supervision of a Dan-rank* instructor.

Karate training can be a lot of fun. It is also a lot of hard work. The dojo provides a safe environment for students to train, where they are supervised by qualified instructors. Students should not be showing off for their peers or trying to teach others outside of this environment. When this happens, there is a good chance that someone’s going to get hurt. Odds are, your instructor can tell you stories about people who’ve done this. (Ask me sometime about one of my old dojo-mates, who broke someone’s legs because he was fooling around outside the dojo!)

All of these things – the Dojo Kun, the Code of Ethics, and the Dojo Rules – are meant to help students have a positive experience with their karate training. They also outline what I expect of myself and of all my students. Some of these aren’t always easy to follow. Still, it’s important that we try because it is the attempt to live up to these standards that makes us better people.

In closing, I’d like to mention one other thing that came up in that discussion with my students. What others expect of you – whether that other person is me, a parent, a teacher, a boss, a friend, or whatever – is not nearly as important as what you expect of yourself. The most important person in determining who you are, is you. The higher your standards are and the more you expect from yourself, the more you’ll accomplish in life.

Set your goals high, and never give up on your ability to reach them

* – Dan-rank = black belt.

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