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“SHINZEN-REI”

By Mark J Toth

In his book, Hanbo-Jutsu: Self-Defense with Staff and Stick [Genbukan, 2006, p. 7], Grandmaster
Tanemura provides a little background on rei:
“In Budo all things begin and end with ‘Rei’ (formal bows and manners). This was decided long
ago as being of the utmost importance to martial artists. Reiho (way of bowing) is that which
unifies heart and spirit, shows respect for Heaven and society, and connects us with nature.”
From this brief passage, we learn two important points about rei. First, in Japan there is a long
association of some form of spiritual practice with the combat arts. Elsewhere, Soke has written about
the ancient association of Ninpo with Shugendo and Mikkyo. Shugendo was an ascetical form of
Buddhism and Mikkyo (lit., “secret teachings”) is the Japanese word for Esoteric Buddhism. Shugendo
and Mikkyo had a profound effect on Ninpo. There are many vestiges of this relationship still practiced
quite openly in the kobudo. For example, the ki-ai (lit., “energy-meeting”) is a special sound that
accompanies or directs the meeting of combatants’ spiritual energy. The kiai gives voice to a clash of
internal energy and spirit that corresponds to the external, physical confrontation that occurs in an
attack. The kiai sound is not arbitrary, something that one makes up. It consists of specific sounds that
are said to produce a certain combative action, such as attacking or breaking the opponent’s spirit. Done
incorrectly, the shout is at best a menacing noise; done correctly, the effect can be quite powerful.
Another vestige of the ancient association with Mikkyo is mudra (“in” in Japanese). Mudra is a hand
gesture that helps one to generate spiritual focus and power, which may then be expressed externally. If
you have been to one of Soke’s Tai Kai, then you have seen Soke use several different types of mudra,
especially during Shinzen Rei. So, while the spiritual side of the martial arts was greatly enhanced during
the Edo Period, the roots of this association go far back.
Equally important, this passage reveals the true purpose of reiho in the traditional martial arts. The
English rendering of the original Japanese lists three goals: (1) unifying “heart and spirit”; (2) showing
respect for “Heaven and society”; and (3) connecting the warrior with “nature.” The Japanese version of
the text also emphasizes the goal of unity or harmony, but it is a little more explicit about the other
terms. Soke uses the terms “heart” (心) and “spirit” (or mind; 精 神), common metaphors for the human
capacities of desire and intellect. But the terms “Heaven,” “society,” and “nature” are all conveyed by a
single term, tenchijin (heaven 天 + earth 地 + man/person 人).
Tenchijin is a special term used frequently in the traditional martial arts. For example, in the traditional
ryu-ha we find many techniques called “Tenchi” or “Tenchijin”. In these instances the term usually refers
to the way a technique targets certain areas of the body, e.g., upper/Heaven and lower/earth.
At the same time, tenchijin often carries a deeper meaning developed in Chinese philosophy. In
Confucian philosophy, tenchijin refers to certain elemental “Powers” that influence our lives in a given
situation. Before beginning any important task, the ancients wanted to know that Heaven, nature, and
society would bless their efforts. With the support of these Powers, success was almost assured;
without their support, the endeavor was almost certain to end in failure. We have a saying in English, “in
the right place at the right time,” that conveys a similar notion. It seems that in spite of our modern
sophistication, we still acknowledge the influence of outside “forces” over our lives.
Later in the same chapter Soke describes the Shinzen Rei, a special bowing ritual that ancient Japanese
warriors used to prepare themselves for battle. While we think of the Shinzen Rei being performed in a
comfortable, climate-controlled training hall, Soke’s description makes it clear that the Shinzen Rei was
born on the battlefield. With roots stretching back to the ancient battlefield, Shinzen Rei was an
important way for warriors to seek unity with the elemental forces, to bring their desires and thoughts
into harmony with the divine/natural/social order. Shinzen Rei still holds special importance in many
contemporary combat training halls (dojo). Within the Genbukan, the Shinzen Rei ceremony is
performed at the start and end of every class.
The next several essays will explore the original elements of the Shinzen Rei, i.e., Mokuso, Kotodama,
and Kuji-Kiri. To reiterate, we are interested in this bow in its own rite and as literary device through
which we might uncover elements of a kobudo etiquette.