36. Jin: The warrior’s compassion

Jin, the character for humanity or compassion.

(I misplaced my own copy of the book by Gary Dias and Robbie Dingemen, so some of the facts in the following story might be wrong. In general, however, here’s how I remember it.)

The police captain did a double take when he walked past the booking desk. There sat an elderly Japanese woman, thick glasses halfway down her nose, dressed in a threadbare dress, nervously rubbing her hands. What was she doing in booking?

He motioned to the sergeant in charge of booking new arrests, and the sergeant pointed  to a newly minted rookie beat cop. The captain asked the officer why the old lady was being booked. The young officer said that the old lady was caught trying to steal an orange from a store. So she was a thief, end of story. The evidence, the one orange, was on the desk.

The captain, Gary A. Dias, had decades on the force and knew there was more to this situation than meets the eye. So he sat down next to the old lady and gently asked her what happened.

The gray-haired lady told him, in halting, pidgin English full of Japanese phrases, that her husband was invalid, they didn’t have much income by way of Social Security, and he was asking for some fresh fruits, but all the money in their budget was spent on his medications. She was walking next to the store and saw the orange…and really, really wanted to get it for her husband but didn’t have enough money…so…

Captain Dias stood up, turned to the rookie officer, and literally yelled in his face. He took out his own wallet, tore out all the bills he had, shoved it in the officer’s hands, and ordered him to go back to the vegetable stand, buy all the food she needed with the money, and drive her back to her apartment with the bags of grocery.

“Oh, and one more thing…” Dias said. The officer was now responsible for checking in on the old lady and her husband at least once a week and making sure that they were doing okay, and if they ever needed anything, he was to help them, or tell him what the problem was. And that was a standing order.

The old lady started crying, holding Dias’ hands and thanking him over and over again.

In the books written by Dias and his wife, Robbie Dingemen; Honolulu Cop, Murder and Mayhem in Paradise and Honolulu CSI, there is a huge array of true stories of hardened criminals in shoot-outs with the police, spurned lovers killing their significant others, and other hard-boiled tales of violence and crimes of passion in Hawaii. Yet this one story was the one that had me in tears.

The point of Dias’ story was that as a police officer, you have to know both the letter of the law as well as the spirit of the law. And in the case of the old lady, booking her and sending her to prison for trying to steal an orange for a bedridden husband was going to do no one, her or society, any good.

I would also call it a great example of jin: humanity, or in Buddhist terms, compassion.

One of the things modern martial artists nowadays tend to forget, when they extemporize about being “modern day warriors” akin to the samurai, is that the samurai were a class of people who were administrators, engineers, poets, government officials, accountants, law enforcement officers, judges, legal scholars, philosophers, administrators…nearly all the upper class functionaries necessary to run a domain as well as a country. Not only did they have to foray out to battle, but in the long periods between wars, they were paper shufflers of the highest order. In those periods, being able to perform civic, administrative, or other necessary social duties were as important to one’s advancement as skill at arms. The best of the samurai weren’t just killers on a leash spoiling for another fight. They had to be educated and trained.

And among the training the warriors received was a grounding in the Confucian classics, in which it was taught that a true squire, a true gentleman, had not only superior skills for his job (as a warrior, in this case, and/or an accountant, or chef, or…), meaning he was educated, but he had to have honesty, righteousness (the ability to act according to the will of human law and Heaven’s will), but also balance all that with his sense of humanity or compassion for his fellow human beings.

The one character used by Confucius and other Eastern philosophers to describe this sense of compassion was Jin: humane-ness. The character is made up of the radical (a discrete “part” of the whole kanji Chinese character) for human, paired with the Chinese symbol for “two.” So compassion arises out of the interaction between two human beings.

The ancient warrior’s compassion is still an odd thing, though, for us moderns. Such compassion may mean, in fact, that you decapitate an enemy right there on the battlefield rather than capture him, because instant death would be better than the humiliating torture the opponent might face were he taken alive.

There is, in fact, an oft-repeated chapter from the Heike Monogatari, the story of the war between the Taira and the Minamoto clans, that reveals the warrior’s sense of compassion (and perhaps ancient Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). In the Battle of Ichi No Tani, the Minamoto warrior Kumagai No Jiro Naozane chased an enemy commander out to the incoming surf. He taunted the enemy to face him, man to man. The commander turned his mount and attacked Naozane. The burly Naozane grabbed the enemy officer and both tumbled into the sand. Naozane quickly straddled the armored warrior and pulled his short sword out to kill the enemy…and he saw that the commander was only a boy of about 17 years old, little older than his own son. In fact, the boy reminded him of his son, who he loved.

The boy had a childish, soft face, with makeup and perfume as was the custom of cultured courtiers of that day. Naozane saw no personal gratification in killing such a young boy so he told the youngster to flee while he had the chance. Letting one underage youth go was not going to bring disaster to his side.

The boy, true to the warrior code, refused to run away. He told Naozane that he would rather be killed than to turn tail and be branded a coward. Naozane pleaded with the boy; other warriors of the Minamoto were quickly catching up to his vanguard and they would torture him if they captured him alive.

“Just take my head and be quick about it!” the boy cried.

Naozane saw his fellow Minamoto galloping up. He made up his mind and killed the boy, taking his head, wrapping it in the youth’s armored shoulder flap. As he was doing so, he noticed a pouch around the boy’s waist. Naozane opened it and found a lacquered flute. He cried, “Ah, how pitiful!  He must have been one of the people I heard making music inside the stronghold just before dawn. There are tens of thousands of riders in our eastern armies, but I am sure none of them has brought a flute to the battlefield. Those court nobles are refined men!”

When, as was the custom after a battle to receive rewards, the heads of the leading enemy commanders were presented to the Minamoto warlords, the youth’s head was recognized as that of Taira Taiyu Atsumori. Tears, they said, fell even among the Minamoto generals because before the war, they had known of Atsumori at court, and of his skill at flute playing.

After the battles, Naozane gave up being a warrior, turning over his household and responsibilities to his own son. He became a monk, and for the rest of his life he prayed for the repose of Atsumori’s spirit.

By necessity, of course, the sense of compassion has to change along with the times. We literally do not fight anymore in classic armor and swords, clan against clan. Most martial artists do not need to consider such battlefield compassion.

But the lessons of such warrior compassion do extend beyond the battlefield, and should reinforce our sense of training in the budo, which by its legacy, should be the inheritors of that warrior tradition.

And so you see such compassion in the case of Captain Dias’ actions. Or take the story of a jihadi’s conversion as told in the recent book, Terrorists in Love, by Ken Ballen. Ballen, a former FBI interrogator, spent two decades pursuing Mafia gangsters and then terrorists. In order to find out what made them tick, he spent years interviewing Islamic Fundamentalist terrorists. One story stands out for me.

Ahmad was living an aimless life until he converted to hardline Islam. Then he saw images of Iraqis being abused by the American “infidels” at Abu Graib prison. He decided to become a jihadi for the sake of rescuing his Islamic brothers and sisters from the “Crusader” invaders of Iraq. But along his long and twisted journey from a suburb in Saudi Arabia to the streets of Baghdad, he met the strangest assortment of characters who claimed to be fighting for jihad. In total, his descriptions paint a picture of a severely  dysfunctional society, with fighters who, in normal times, would be classified as nutcases, psychopaths, or career criminals. He had to pay his own way or bribe jihadi officers, even giving up his prized leather jacket, in order to join the fight. He was treated badly all the way through, until the day he was finally given an assignment. He was told he would accompany two seasoned fighters to deliver a tanker truck full of gas to a neighborhood in Baghdad. He was finally given good food and offered a modicum of camaraderie. He asked to have a message sent to his parents in Arabia but his commander just blew his request off.

As they reached the destination, the two veteran jihadis told him to take the steering wheel and drive the tanker truck to a check point ahead, and then they jumped out of the van. Ahmad didn’t know how to drive so he had his hands full trying to control the truck…but when he reached the check point, instead of coming up to meet him again as they promised, the two jihadis pressed a remote detonator switch and blew up the truck, with him in it.

By some incredible stroke of luck, Ahmad survived the explosion, even as Iraqis around him were burned to a crisp in the fireball. His skin was burned, his fingers fried to stumps, but he was rescued and evacuated to an Iraqi hospital. He felt guilty for being responsible for the deaths of so many Iraqi Muslims, so he confessed his role to the hospital officials. Soon enough, members of the Iraqi security showed up. They stuck a knife in his open wounds and dragged it around to torture him to obtain more information. Then one day, they told him the Americans were coming to take him to Abu Graib prison.

If he didn’t feel like he was already living a hell on earth, he thought the American Crusader infidels were going to truly take him to hell.

Instead, the American soldiers showed up, carefully dressed his wounds, and carried him in a stretcher to a waiting van. At Abu Graib, he was cleaned of his encrusted blood, pus and feces. His wounds were dressed, his burns treated and bandaged. An Army nurse was entrusted to take care of him full time. She changed his dressing carefully. It was the first time a woman other than his mother had ever touched him in his life.

Ahmad, by being given compassion by his hated enemies, was put into a quandary. The jihadis he met used and abused him, took his money and his jacket, and treated him like cannon fodder. The Iraqi Muslims he came to save tortured him. It was his sworn enemy, the Crusader infidels, who treated him with compassion. He fell in love with the nurse. He answered whatever questions the Americans asked of what he knew about the insurgency, providing important information. As soon as he requested that his parents be informed of his condition, the Americans contacted the Saudi government and informed his parents.

When he was well enough, Ahmad was returned to Arabia and was, at the time of the interviews, in a rehab program for jihadis.

Ahmad’s story is of course not the usual tale of a jihadi. As noted, terrorists and Insurgents seem to made up of a wide assortment of unsavory characters, not all of whom can be turned by compassion. For those fighters, the only way to stop them is to kill them, probably.

But then again, with Ahmad, compassion changed his life. So that’s a modern take on the notion of jin for a warrior.

And we don’t have to go very far to seek a role model for those of us who do martial arts  but are civilians. The samurai were themselves largely in non-military roles throughout the greater part of their history. The best of them served with distinction and propriety, with strength and compassion. That’s the role we should envision when it comes to a warrior’s compassion.

The Japanese film director, Kurosawa Akira, had a long and productive career, but I would hazard an opinion that his best, noblest movie was Seven Samurai. On top of being an incredible action movie, Kurosawa used the movie’s samurai characters to display what he thought were the noblest traits of an upper-class warrior. The samurai in the movie truly became heroic not because they fought and killed the brigands, but because they gave their lives over to protect, defend and enrich the lives of others.

We may call it jin, or a sense of Buddhist compassion. Christians of course will recognize this as charity or following the path of Christ. It is the true Way of the Warrior.

9 thoughts on “36. Jin: The warrior’s compassion

  1. Kushida Sensei was fond of telling samurai stories. He told us one about some powerful samurai who had a forest on his estate. He was annoyed that the villagers were always in there carrying off wood.

    He decreed that the villagers could have all the wood they wanted, BUT he held seven trees in that forest to be sacred and to touch any of them would mean death. He also declined to indicate which trees were among those seven.

    The villagers stopped coming for the wood.

    After a time, his vassals brought to him a poor young man who chopped down a tree and was carrying off the wood. He was asked to explain himself. He pled his case as having a sickly wife and small children who were freezing during the cold winter.

    The lord heard him out and said “that tree wasn’t one of the seven” and the villager kept his head.

  2. Atsumori is my favorite tale of its kind. A few years ago I got to watch a Noh play about Naozane long after he became a priest and at the climax of the play Atsumori’s ghost visits him. As for movies, the whole time I read your post I couldn’t but help think about the movie “the Twilight Samurai” directed by Yoji Yamada. It’s about samurai, but more about this one man’s struggle to support his daughter as a single father. A perspective of the life of a samurai that doesn’t involve war. Great post.

    1. Zacky,
      Yes, “Twilight Samurai” is one of my favorite samurai movies, too. Great, quiet little piece (except at the end when there’s that fight scene in the cramped house!). Most lower ranking samurai lived lives like that, I suspect, taking care of their family as best they could. “Atsumori” is also a beautiful Noh play. I think I saw a performance once when I used to go nearly every Sunday to the Noh theatre in Kyoto with free tickets from my tea sensei. Beautiful prose, if you can wade through the old Japanese…

  3. Just…excellent.

    Another aspect of compassion that I see is taking one’s skills seriously enough that they often do not need to be used to harm or kill, but to control. One gains confidence with competence, and with confidence, more often keeps a clearer head and avoids acting out of anger or fear.

    “Competent professionalism,” or as special operations soldier and tactical trainer Paul Howe calls it “tactical maturity” has saved far more harm and lives than by-the-book rigidity and panic based responses.

    And +++ on Twilight Samurai. The whole thing with his daughters really chokes me up. Such a humanizing piece to counteract all the “ultimate warrior” hype we see.

    1. Good points, Kit. One senior in my system told me that a really high level practitioner should be able to adjust his/her reaction to the situation in terms of force necessary to end the conflict. So you don’t break the arms and kill the guy if he’s just your drunk uncle throwing up your rug. You just engage him enough to get him out of the room, for example, to barf in the ivory throne. It’s always doing just enough to control the situation, not elevating it beyond the necessary. That calls, though, for a high skill level so you can remain in control and prevail over the encounter at all levels, and is a very different response compared to flailing away and breaking someone’s neck if he spills red wine on your white shag carpet. Conversely, the problem some may have is adjusting reactions properly if the threat is truly life-threatening. For most of us (myself included), such encounters are so rare that they are not in our usual day to day life…the life of a middle class American in everyday suburbia. Hence, you may see some people “freeze” or react in ways that threaten their own lives in such situations. Koryu and other martial arts are not a cure-all for surviving modern-day encounters, but they do offer a template for the mental and physical responses, but only work if the participant trains with the proper mental and physical attitude.

  4. Two heiho-ka by Yagyu Sekishusai, veteran of many battles:

    The secret of heiho is unfailingly attending to jin (humanity) gi (duty) rei (courtesy) chi (wisdom) shin (fidelity).

    The secret and decree of Shinkage-ryu Heiho is on (warmth) ryou (straightforwardness) kyou (respect) ken (modesty) jo (putting others first).

  5. Another keeper Wayne… Twilight Samurai is one of my favorite movies. His character is well defined in the movie and the relationship between him and his daughters is great. I wouldn’t mind being good friends and next door neighbors with them. Fortunately these qualities of budo were what attracted me to my teachers when I was young. A couple of them went astray later in my relationship with them, but I still learned good lessons. Sometimes our best lessons are “what not to do” up close and personal. Bujutsu is hollow without Budo.

  6. Again, thanks for the comments, Chuck. The back-and-forth from folk like you really help with furthering the ideas and concepts. One of my goals is to one day compile this (with appropriate comments by people) blog into a kind of online manuscript, with comments being as much a part of the conversation as my own musings!

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