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Guest Post: Kata Gassho

This Guest Post is by my friend and mentor, George Donahue. George is an instructor of Kishaba Juku Shorin-Ryu and was the head of the Ken Zen Dojo in Manhattan for about fifteen years. He has written articles for FightingArts.com.

He wrote this post in response to my post: Passing In Front.

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I've been thinking about your use of the kata gassho, the open palm extended to the front, when you pass between people. You relate that it is to show that you are harmless, not wielding a weapon. Shorinji Kempo uses it too, for much the same reason, but also for more. Because my dojo in New York City was shared with the NYC Shorinji Kempo group, we often used this gesture, too, particularly when our classes overlapped or we had joint training. It definitely wasn't a Matsubayashi practice.

But it's origin has nothing to do with weapons. The regular gassho, with the two hands pressed palm to palm, is a Buddhist sign -- a mudra -- of blessing and compassion. It's almost always accompanied by a humble bending at the waist, a sort of moving bow, as is the kata gassho. When the left hand is occupied with carrying anything (and it's always the left that does the grunt work), the right hand alone makes the mudra, kata gassho. In the occasional instances where the right hand is occupied but the left is free, the left would do. So, you may incidentally be showing that you aren't wielding a weapon, but the original gesture is one of peace and blessing. A positive gesture of respect and good will rather than a negative one demonstrating harmlessness. In other words, it's not the absence of the weapon or the ill intent that is the signal, it's the presence of good will that is the gift.

The Dalai Lama performs kata gassho frequently, maybe hundreds or thousands of times a day, and there is no question of ill intent there. The people I see most often performing kata gassho in this neck of the woods are Korean Zen Buddhists (or others who practice the Korean
way), and they seldom carry weapons. There is not as strong a martial tradition in Korean Zen as there is in Japanese Zen. Japanese Shingon Buddhists also perform kata gassho almost incessantly, or they did in my youth. Whenever I remember any of my elderly uncles or cousins, I can never picture them any way but in that posture--except when I visualize them practicing kenjutsu or other activities of that sort and whacking me.

You also spoke inadvertently about kata gassho when you were describing some aikido people as not letting go. I had never thought of it this way. My Aikido sensei, Akira Okada, specifically instructed us to perform kata gassho as we completed a throw, with the active hand, as a gesture of respect and good will to our uke. We weren't (or at least we weren't supposed to be) holding on to our momentary power over another. We were saying a silent "thank you" even as the action unfolded. My childhood Judo and Jujutsu sensei, Shunnosuke Ando, also taught us to do this, but he didn't explain why--at least while I was around. Perhaps he saved the explanation for the older kids. I think the Aikido practice goes all the way back to Morihei Ueshiba, who taught that respect and compassion for one's attackers kept them from being one's enemies. You counter their violence with good will; you try to keep from harming them. No one can be your enemy without your cooperation.

George Donahue