The kanji character 祖 “so” means ancestor, pioneer, founder, innovator, and grandparent.
If you’re of Asian origin or have Asian friends of a certain age, you will hear them say “our ancestors are always with us.”
We owe a debt of gratitude to blood relations who gave us our DNA and characteristics. Great, good or a work in progress, it is our genetic make-up.
However, ancestors needn’t be related by blood. Men and women who made a tangible difference in one’s life, including a mentor, martial arts instructor or spiritual teacher might fall into this category.
But there is a second category of veneration.
At any Shotokan or Goju-ryu dojo you will undoubtedly see a large image of a legendary and lineage-affirming master. Funakoshi and Miyagi have inspired legions of followers to accept their art as real, unique, and superior to others. Yet it’s unlikely the dojo sensei or his/her teachers, ever met these people.
So why the need to beatify these figures?
Is there a sense of safety in clinging to the past?
What do we learn from our ancestors?
Discovering the history of our predecessors and gaining insight into the challenges they overcame can help us cultivate fortitude and inspire us to become better individuals, family members and budoka.
In my opinion, honouring our martial forebearers serves several functions: demonstrate appreciation for their immeasurable impact on us; preserve social order by strengthening bonds across generations; ease grief over the loss of loved ones; come to terms with our own mortality; and reduce anxiety about life and our practice.
It’s essential we remember the past and those who paved the path, or to quote a popular Chinese proverb – “When eating fruit, remember the one who planted the tree.”