I just visited a Barnes & Noble bookstore for a nice, lazy weekend afternoon of book browsing. However, I didn’t look at many martial arts books or magazines. I glanced at a few, but spent more time browsing in the pet, woodworking, and new fiction sections. Why? I guess I just think there’s too much emphasis on gratuitous violence in many of those publications for me.
…That’s pretty odd, you might think, considering that I have spent over four decades training in various martial arts, huh? That’s the paradox at the heart of East Asian martial arts, I think. And it goes to the root of an essential aspect of such traditional arts that many modern practitioners simply fail to grasp. The martial arts were developed to a high degree of technical efficiency in those East Asian countries, but they carried with them a huge warning sign. To celebrate one’s ability to wreak destruction on others was considered ill-omened, and would lead to eventual disaster, like having overbearing pride, or hubris, in Greek thought, which would lead to one’s downfall by the gods.
Perhaps, in an imperfect world, martial strength is necessary for self-survival of oneself or a body politic. But it should not be a cause for arrogance or celebration. It should be treated as a necessary skill, a method of cultivating one’s mind, body and spirit, not so much a way to dominate others as a way to heal oneself and to survive and save others.
The Tao Te Ching, the first written treatise on Taoism, notes:
Sharp weapons are inauspicious instruments.
Everyone hates them.
Therefore the man of the Tao is not comfortable with them.
In the domestic affairs of the gentleman
The left is the position of honor.
In military affairs the right is the position of honor.
Since weapons are inauspicious instruments, they are not the instruments of the gentleman
So he uses them without enjoyment
And values plainness.
Victory is never sweet.
Those for whom victory is sweet
Are those who enjoy killing.
If you enjoy killing, you cannot gain the trust of the people.
On auspicious occasions the place of honor is on the left.
On inauspicious occasions the place of honor is on the right.
The lieutenant commander stands on the left.
The commander-in-chief stands on the right.
And they speak, using the funerary rites to bury them.
The common people, from whom all the dead have come
Weep in lamentation.
The victors bury them with funerary rites.
(Translation from the mindgazer.org web site)
Certainly, in China and Japan, there were warriors who boasted of their prowess in an overbearing manner. There were leaders who thought nothing of using their military strength to pillage, plunder and subdue the weak and innocent. But in all ages, the epitome of a true bugeisha (martial artist) of the highest order was that of a person with exemplary technical skills, but also with a gentle, humane nature, literate, skilled in the arts, and compassionate as well as truthful and just.
The great sadness I have is that most popular publications about martial arts nowadays, however, pay short shrift to the attainment of those more humanistic attributes, and instead concentrate on technical skill, the aggrandizement of personalities, or supposedly sure-fire ways to instigate violence and mayhem in the name of “martial arts.” Rather than cultivating a gentle mind, such publications tend to celebrate violence and egotism.
Consider, instead, what the Tao Te Ching says about seeking after worldly possessions or power as ends in themselves:
Coming into life and entering death,
The followers of life are three in ten.
The followers of death are three in ten.
Those whose life activity is their death ground are three in ten.
Why is this?
Because they live life grasping for its rich taste.
Now I have heard that those who are expert in handling life
Can travel the land without meeting tigers and rhinos,
Can enter battle without being wounded.
The rhino has no place to plant its horn,
The tiger has no place to place its claws,
Weapons find no place to receive their sharp edges.
Because he has no death-ground.
As one acquaintance of mine noted, one of the really wonderful movies that depicted such an ideal was Twilight Samurai, starring Sanada Hiroyuki. The title comes from the main character’s nickname. He works in a low-level, low-paying accounting position, keeps to himself, is humble in spirit, and spends most of his spare time taking care of his family. A widow, he takes on menial side jobs to make enough money for his children, without complaint or excuses. He doesn’t go out drinking and boasting, so his co-workers, fellow samurai, think he’s a bit “dark” and “boring,” hence the nickname they call him behind his back, “Tasogare Seibei,” or “Seibei, the Dark (twilight),” i.e., not too bright.
Yet, when one of his friends is forced into a duel, Seibei tries to stop the violence, revealing himself to have been an outstanding student of swordsmanship. Using just a short branch, he knocks out his friend’s sword-wielding braggart…and apologizes for hurting the belligerent samurai, to boot. That incident surprises everyone in the clan, and sets into motion a climactic battle scene in which he again must use his martial skills, unwillingly, to end a major incident that could spell ruin for the clan.
The theme of the “hidden” or humble martial arts master is a common one in many Chinese and Japanese movies, if you think about it. In the classic Kurosawa Akira movie, Seven Samurai, the leader of the band of idealistic samurai, upon meeting an old companion, can only talk about how scared they were in their last losing battle. That certainly didn’t give the villagers who hired them much confidence in their abilities, but they turned out to be heroic, skilled, daring…but very pragmatic, as warriors ought to be.
In another of Kurosawa’s movies, Redbeard (Akahige), a medieval doctor (Mifune Toshiro) wants to take a sick girl from a brothel to his clinic for treatment. The brothel owner calls on her bodyguards to beat him up. He tries to convince them not to fight, but they refuse to let the sick girl go, so he shrugs and says, “Well, it can’t be helped.”
The fight scene, short and swift, is one of the most brutal, vicious and realistic-looking movie versions of grappling-style fighting I ever saw, bar none. As a traditional doctor, Dr. Redbeard is a skilled bonesetter. So he uses his knowledge to dislocate his attacker’s limbs, one after another.
After the fight, he kneels over his erstwhile attackers and pops their limbs back into place, and tells his assistant, “Not good. I think I overdid it.”
Those examples were brought to mind a couple of months ago when I was training in my home dojo in Kyoto. We were learning short dagger defenses against a long sword. The beginning “stance” is basically simply standing at ease, knees slightly bent. I assumed the bent knees were mainly for “spring,” to allow you to move very quickly when the attacker came at you.
My teacher told another student that essentially, that was the reason for the flexed knees. But he added, “You also want to make yourself look deceptively smaller and therefore weaker. Then you know he’ll come at you with a particular attack, head on, because he thinks he can crush you easily. If you look too large and powerful, he might come at you in a more deceptive manner and you might not be able to adjust quickly enough.”
After watching us for a while, our sensei continued his explanation, “You are all martial artists, so it’s easy to look tough and strong. But it’s not so easy to look weak and unassuming. And that’s what you SHOULD look like. Never show your enemy your true face. Always deceive him. And that’s not so easy, because as martial artists, you have been striving to NOT look weak. But you must appear so outwardly.”
He was right. When I tried to teach the forms back in my own dojo, boy, did my own students have a hard time with appearing weak. One even fell over when he bent his knees and the sword stroke came at him. It was that hard to appear outwardly weak but to be internally strong.
And for myself, I think I’m only now beginning to grasp the concept, even after years of martial arts. Tai chi ch’uan stresses that you should be soft outside, strong inside with chi. Judo stressed suppleness. Jujutsu also stresses flexibility, which can be mistaken for “weakness.” Aikido stressed not meeting force on force, but redirecting and deflecting the attacker’s force. In all such arts, being outwardly supple and yielding while having one’s chi or ki strong is the essence of the techniques. And beyond techniques, it’s being strong inside but not belligerent outwardly. It’s being a gentleman, in the old Confucian or British sense of a gentle, humane individual.
I can’t say that I “get” the idea fully. I’m still learning, but I think, at least, I see the path ahead of me. I know what to aim for. And it’s not the stuff I see in a lot of popular martial arts publications in the local bookstore.
As the Tao Te Ching also says:
If you used the Tao as a principle for ruling
You would not dominate the people by military force.
What goes around comes around.
Where the general has camped
Thorns and brambles grow.
In the wake of a great army
Come years of famine.
If you know what you are doing
You will do what is necessary and stop there.
Accomplish but don’t boast
Accomplish without show
Accomplish without arrogance
Accomplish without grabbing
Accomplish without forcing…
…Occult abilities are just flowers of the Tao
And the beginning of foolishness.
Therefore the Master dwells in the substantial
And not in the superficial.
Rests in the fruit and not in the flower.
So let go of that and grasp this.
Or, as another wise man once said, blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.