Does force have a legitimate role to play in creating a just and meaningful peace? This is a question that the martial arts address at a personal level in ways that may have implications for other levels as well. David Nerbovig is a long-time student of the martial arts, and lives on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
IN THIS ARTICLE I will try to lay out the reasons for self defense, the limits of it and why I and others follow a martial art. These subjects integrate to a considerable extent, obviously, and are related by practical considerations as well as more subtle ones of spirituality and ethics. I will try to indicate as I go why I consider the effects on character and attitude to be the more important.
Self-defense, as I use the term, is the protection of a person from physical harm by attack. This context does not include the realms of politics or public policy. However, the term is usually extended to include the physical protection of others against unwarranted attack. Self-defense is extemporaneous rather than planned and its concerns are tactical rather than strategic, although the attitude inculcated by the martial arts could well be thought of as strategy.
There is a primary and a secondary question to be answered here. The questions are – should I defend myself, and if so to what extent? Put simply, why and how much?
The question of the propriety of self-defense must be answered, and to an ethical person the answer is not an automatic yes. Is self-defense a right, a responsibility, a privilege or is it immoral to take any violent or potentially violent action for any reason? To answer, it seems to me that the idea that a person retains life and wellbeing by privilege was placed beyond the pale some time ago along with the divine right of kings. This stance was well stated in 1776 and needs no defense here. I believe that self- defense is a responsibility more than a right on the grounds that it is immoral to allow unjust force to go unopposed. Justice demands the opposition of injustice.
The harming of an inoffensive person would seem to be an injustice of the grossest kind, whether that person is yourself or someone else. If you allow an assault to proceed unopposed you become an accomplice, and share the guilt. To detach yourself by saying that each person must live out their own karma is certainly convenient; yet it seems to me to be a perversion of that philosophy. We are all connected. If you yourself do not oppose savagery, then who shall?
If self-defense begins in ethics and is carried through physically, where does it end? It is bounded by that form of ethic known as appropriate force. Appropriate force is the gauge by which a response is measured. The parameters are the violence and perceived intent of the attack. An attack that is clearly meant to intimidate or annoy obviously does not call for the same level of response as a murderous assault. Appropriate force is that which will effectively repel the attack without radically escalating the level of violence involved. Not enough response will worsen the situation, too much will place the attacked person in the position of being an attacker.
A deficiency in some defense systems is a seeming assumption that all confrontations will be of the Drop-the- Bomb kind. Firearms are a good example of an all-or-nothing response system. Against nuisances, intimidators and most other attackers, they are decidedly inappropriate. In general, fear coupled with a devastating weapon becomes the most destructive thing imaginable, striking down both attacker and defender. The weapon strikes down the aggressor and the law strikes down the defender. The answer to this is to have a wide enough repertory of techniques to meet each situation on its level. This takes time and experience. Sound self-defense cannot be purchased.
The goal of self-defense, then, is not to become lethal but to be able to respond to any situation in the fashion that it merits. The expansion of options through the practice of technique and the gaining of insight is the result we are seeking.
Why Follow a Martial Art?
In this I will refer mostly to Karate-do (the Way of the Empty Hand). I am more familiar with it than with other martial arts. These other arts are certainly worthy of study, but I cannot discuss that with which I am not familiar.
Many Oriental martial arts are Ways, as in way of life or way of thinking. The -do suffix of many martial arts reflects this, as in Kendo (Sword Way), Judo (Gentle Way) and Aikido (Spirit-meeting Way). These are not just fighting systems. They are fighting systems and systems of ethics and correct behavior. Body and character are trained together. Some fighting systems are just that. In Japan, these are suffixed – jutsu to show that they are arts like boxing and wrestling where character training is derived from physical training. Jujutsu is such an art.
We in the west have an unfortunate tendency to compartmentalize our skills. We consider our philosophy and our physical selves to be separate. Too many think that the mind can be trained without the body and vice versa. But where does one end and the other begin? One of the great values of the martial arts is to force a rethinking of the master-slave attitude toward the mind-body and show the true power of the integrated self. The spirit is the beneficiary of this integration; it can only be made stronger by a more perfect understanding.
There are both long and short term benefits to be gained from the martial arts, many of them based on the integration effect already noted. However, one must ask – are the benefits worth the effort? To some, unfortunately, nothing is worth any effort. These words will be incomprehensible to them. This is addressed to those who understand effort. The training in any martial art ranges from challenging to rigorous. Minor injuries are common. Progress is slow and the attainment of reasonable competence can take years of study. Finally, it can all be brought to nothing by the working of fate. Despite the frustrations, the sometimes glacial rate of progress, the pain, and the large commitment of time, there are those of us who believe that it is all worth it. Each student has a slightly different set of reasons (few have only one reason). Some want to learn to fight, others desire the comprehensive exercise, others need their confidence built, most want all the above. These are all starting reasons. Most of those who stay come to Gichen Funikoshi’s realization that "Karate exists for the perfection of the character of its participants."
Each physical skill has its counterpart in the maturing character. With strength comes forbearance as the consequences of one’s actions become apparent. As proficiency increases, so does the respect for the hard-won skills of others. As sparring experience grows, so does the realization of the error of judging by outward appearances. As skill grows, so does the ability to walk away from a proffered fight knowing that you could have won. There is nothing to prove, and no honor in brawling. The true depth of the saying "There is no first strike in Karate" becomes known. Karate-ka are perilous, but only to those bringing violence.
Karate’s effect on the mental processes can be rather marked. One of the first misapprehensions to be jettisoned is the idea of taking a course in Karate, as though it were to be absorbed in some set length of time. As an understanding of what the martial arts actually involve becomes apparent, what is meant by the term "open-ended" also becomes apparent. It comes as a bit of a shock to some to find out that karate is a lifetime endeavor, and that the main quality required is persistence. Through constant training the physical becomes mental. The technique is thrown the instant it becomes appropriate. What in practice may have been simple, repetitive and boring – even trivial – becomes decidedly non-trivial in a life-and-death encounter. Each movement in practice represents such an encounter, but once this realization is made, it must be set aside to achieve the state of attention without tension.
If anything sets the martial artist apart, it is the refinement of the state of mind called Zanshin, "the remaining mind." This state is characterized by a relaxed awareness and is described as "the mind like the moon in a pool." Calmness is the untroubled state of the pool, while fear, doubt and other such emotions are ripples in the pool that cause the reflection of reality (the moon’s image) to be broken up and untrue. In times of stress, the true situation having been assessed, the state of Isshin can take place. This comprises the focus of all powers on one objective. This single-minded focus enables one to accomplish one’s objective without regard for extraneous things. The most advanced state of mind is called Mushin or, "no mind." This is essentially hooking oneself into the world without the filter and domination (and wasted time) of conscious thought. In the hands of a master, this can become the Karate of spontaneous creation where the art is so well understood that techniques seem to create themselves to fit the situation. When this occurs, the master has become Karate personified, and the conscious mind ceases to exist as a separate entity. In a self-defense situation, the mind sees clearly and considers (Zanshin), focuses the powers (Isshin), and then gets out of the way (Mushin). These things do not lend themselves to easy explanation. The martial arts must be done to be understood.
While a martial art’s effect on character is its most important benefit, there are other more immediate benefits that also arise. These are the physical benefits that go with a physical discipline. Flexibility, strength and endurance all increase, as does the ability to commit one’s strength to a specific action. Complex actions no longer seem so daunting. The body’s senses and perceptions are fine-tuned. The body’s physical limits are expanded.
The Martial Artist and Society
The effect of the martial arts on a citizen of a society can be thought of in terms of positive and negative emotional load. A negative emotional load consists of fear, insecurity, indecision, chronic doubt and other things that lead to a negative self-image that projects outwardly in many ways. Most people simply read this and move on, but some use this knowledge to pick victims. Much of self defense is simply avoiding being a victim. Training in the martial arts inculcates a positive emotional loading consisting of attitudes of competence, confidence, and power. This projects as a non-victim image. This alone will daunt many aggressors. Unfortunately, this does not cure the would-be aggressor’s sickness, but it does cut down on the number of assaults.
As I see it, one of the best societal results of martial arts training is the attitude of being your brother’s keeper. The bell curve of humanity will always include some sociopaths, bullies, and the like at its nether end. Catching them after they do harm is not good enough. We must prevent that harm from occurring. We must each take that responsibility upon ourselves. Each of us owes that to each other.