One myth of classical training is that it is silent. The teacher gives an occasional command and the students just work. This is usually seen as positive, time is spent “training not talking”. People say that is the “old way” when no one questioned the teacher and people didn’t want to gab instead of work out. Sounds reasonable, I guess. Certainly the other approach- lots of talking- is not a very good way to train. I have visited dojo where people spent far more time discussing the details of a technique (and often how “devastating” it was) than sweating. The term “kuchi bushi” (口武士) roughly translates as “mouth warrior”, and means someone who talks about training instead of actually training. The fact there is a common term for it means that it is something of a problem, in Japan as well as here. But the other extreme is equally bad.
A while back I wrote a little about communicating in the dojo. If you are just working out- doing physical exercise like pushups, hitting a bag, working with the chishi, doing reps of technique or kata- not a lot of conversation is needed. Once you have the basic instruction just do it. Don’t gab. But for much of our martial arts training you need to be actively engaged with your partners. One way to do that is to use your words. They come in handy. For example doing body conditioning it is important to be working at your edge. Your partner is unlikely to know exactly where that is, so giving each other feedback- hit a little harder, a little softer, etc.- is the most efficient way to train. Instead of getting injured or not getting any benefit, just communicate.
On top of that, if you are taking charge of your own training you need feedback and information. Your teacher, and training partners, are the only place you can get that. If you don’t communicate, ask questions, listen to answers, have your current knowledge and assumptions challenged mentally as well as physically, you can’t grow. So you need instruction. And you need to ask questions and receive answers. But how much of this is a good thing, and how much is just blather?
I have never been in a good dojo that was silent. Nor in one that was a gab-fest. Instead periodic topical conversation was the norm. Partners giving each other feedback, some instruction from the teacher or seniors, and a question every now and then. Occasionally some laughter, because funny things can happen when you are pushing yourselves. It is not a church, it is a dojo, and since we are studying what can be considered a form of communication, it is essential we do just that.
I can’t help but wonder where the myth of the silent dojo got started, especially since I have not seen them in Okinawa or Japan. It is not even a tradition. If you pay attention to the stories of Miyagi, his classes were really physically demanding, but there are also these epic lecture and Q&A sessions after training or at other times. He talked a lot! Sure there are plenty of stories of the “old days” and plenty of teachers who discouraged questions, but somehow the information got passed down… So where did the idea of a silent dojo come from?
I do have a theory. Most of the first generation that brought the arts back to the US were servicemen. They came from a “don’t speak unless you are spoken to” environment. They did not have much if any language training, and they were not in Asia for that long. Early in one’s training questions and conversation are less useful as one is working on basic movements and doing a lot of repetition. Talk isn’t needed much. And without a common language it is pretty time-consuming, and often not very rewarding, to try to talk. That seems like a double whammy to me, one that keeps conversation to a minimum. When I was living and training in Japan I noticed that as my language skills improved my teachers talked more. They were willing to explain concepts like ma’ai, kuzushi, chinkuchi and kyusho as they were relevant to what we were doing, explanations that would have been impossible earlier. That was probably also fostered by improved understanding of what we were doing- I was reaching points where the explanation was actually relevant.
At the same time I also learned how to phrase questions, and when to keep quiet. The phrasing is actually rather important. It may be a personal thing or it may be a cultural thing but I realized that there was quite a difference between “sensei, what does this mean” or “how do you do x”, and “sensei, does this mean this…” or “is this the right way to”. The first were usually met with a fairly dismissive answer, anything from “keep training, you will learn eventually” to the patently untrue but clear conversation ender “I don’t know”. The second was met with anything from “no, keep training” (especially if what I presented was particularly poor) to a long delve into the movement or idea and its accompanying practices and applications, where I was on the right track and where, and why, I was not.
That was coupled with timing. When to ask questions is important. Of course if sensei says “do you have any questions” it is the perfect time. Otherwise? It is kind of rude to interrupt when your teacher is actually teaching. If the group is doing something it is not be a good time. When you are expected to be doing something else is also not particularly timely. When then? Well, when were Miyagi sensei’s talk-sessions? After training. You can also try before training. Out having drinks or dinner. Other times might include out with a dojo group at a festival. When stopping by the dojo on a non-training night. At a fellow student’s sayonara party. If you only come to the dojo, and only see your teacher, for scheduled training times then you might not actually get any chance to ask questions. So not only do you need to train, but you need to be part of the group, and spend time with your teacher(s).
So timing, phrasing, language skills, etiquette, understanding of the system, all may be reasons why students are asked to keep quiet. But there is one more. As you get to know someone better there is more to talk about. You get more comfortable communicating. How much time do you spend talking to people you hardly know? Simple greetings, polite small talk, but not much of substance I would bet. Isn’t it the same for new students? So again, relationships are important. They can have a pretty strong impact on just what is communicated in the dojo. And what is not.