A budo student of mine recently sent me an Internet link to an article and video, thinking it might make for good commentary on this blog. The article described a recent MMA fight in which one of the participants gave a middle-finger salute, to his opponent, in the middle of the fight. This fighter has done it before in the past, in other fights. But perhaps as a kind of poetic justice, he lost that match. So much for his bad behavior. The guy is a loser.
I thought about the incident a lot, and not just in particular. Boorish behavior, I realized, is all over “martial arts.” There’s no getting around it. It happens. But if you narrow it down to budo; the Martial Ways (implying a kind of spiritual as well as physical training) of Japan, it’s frowned upon. It’s not part of the classical warrior’s code. What that guy did in his sport may be fine for his sport. So if that’s what their sport is all about, then go for it. Who am I to say anything about boorish behavior there?
However, in the context of Japanese culture and history, the bujutsu arts, or bugei, the predecessors of modern budo, were the fighting arts of a warrior class. It was a hereditary social class that prided itself on its traditions and heritage. As a social class, no matter the personal wealth, a member of the buke was expected to carry himself or herself in a certain way, as the “flower” of society, as a representative of all that was good and noble about the culture. He had to have “hin” (elegance or quality, as my martial arts teacher would tell me).
Especially in times of war such ideals are, of course, often abridged or forgotten. The history of Japanese classical wars is rife with episodes of rank brutality, traitors, turncoats, atrocities perpetrated on civilians, the purposeful slaughter of innocents, the torture of the weak and defeated. Seppuku, the act of ritual suicide so fascinating to Western Japanophiles, may have arisen not just out of a sense of honor (to avoid the shame of being captured alive) but out of fear of incredibly cruel torture.
And yet, from the earliest beginnings of the warriors on to their self-imposed demise in the Meiji Period, countless samurai philosophers have stressed the necessity to embed altruistic ideals in the head of the practical fighting bushi, be it man or woman. Different clans and families created many kadenho, or “house rules” that described the comportment and attitude a warrior should take. Bujutsu teachers would write not only about the technical, tactical and strategic implications of their art, but also about the way to develop a proper mindset, and how to confront and survive the chaos of battle, the mind being the last battlefield. They realized that a brutalized warrior was not a warrior at all, but a beast, a madman. To contain the madness of war, the violence of combat, and to survive in times of peace, a samurai had to adhere to a set of guiding principals that made him more than just a killer of humans. He had to live up to a higher sense of purpose.
Much of the writing may be culture-specific. Every culture will have a different view of what war and combat is all about. For example, Maori warriors would stick their tongues out at British redcoats during the colonial wars in New Zealand. Even more disdainfully, some of them would drop their clothes and moon the Brits with their exposed rear ends, although I suspect that they were mindful of being just out of accurate musket range after a few such encounters in which they might have been shot in the buttocks. The peruperu style of haka, an aggressive war chant, was performed before battle between Maori tribes, with exaggerated gestures and postures, to scare the enemy.
By contrast, samurai are encouraged to be understated and restrained. It’s influenced by classical Japanese society. Being upper class meant being elegant, noble, and wise, sort of like a medieval “Jedi Knight.” Think of the contrast between two characters in Kurosawa Akira’s epic movie, “Seven Samurai,” between the leader of the samurai, who epitomizes the best traits of the bushi, and Mifune Toshiro’s character, a samurai wannabe.
Kanbei, played by Shimura Takeshi, is introduced to us in a scene that describes his selflessness. In order to rescue an infant held hostage by a thief, he nonchalantly shaves his head to pretend to be a priest, in order to get close enough to the criminal. For many Westerners, the shot of him cutting off his topknot and shaving his head by a river is a throwaway scene. For Japanese, however, it’s a momentous moment. The topknot hairdo signifies warrior status. To cut it off usually meant you were being thrown out of your caste, or forgoing all your ranks and privileges to become a pauper, farmer or priest. Yet, Kanbei easily cast aside the outward trappings of his hereditary rank in order to save the life of a farmer’s child. For farmers and onlooking samurai alike, that act of humanity, and his superlative martial handling of the criminal, was a cause for great admiration, so much so that a young warrior intent on learning how to “be a samurai” asks to become his student. It’s not just about technical ability to swing a sword or throw people around. It’s about mental and spiritual training. Kanbei gathers his group of warriors who follow him not for riches or victory (one samurai comments early on that he thinks it’s a losing cause. Again. But, unlike other battles for land and power, a noble one. So he’ll join the group not for glory or riches, but to follow this noble leader one more time.)
One may argue that in this day and age of predator drones and missile attacks, that the lessons of the bushi are archaic. Perhaps. And much of it is, as I noted, culture-specific (learning how to properly dress a decapitated head for presentation to one’s lord is, after all, not something I’m going to ever use in my job as a college professor, after all). On the other hand the general admonitions to humanity, humility, elegance, humbleness, fortitude, rectitude and so on do still resonate across time and cultures. Those same traits are admirable in many different cultures and military and warrior traditions. In large part, they form the ethos of what philosopher Joseph Campbell called the Universal Hero, the evolving epic hero of all great adventures in all times. Maybe we don’t read much about samurai heroes like Kanbei or Kusunoki Masashige, or the woman warrior Tomoe Gozen, but the same archetypal warrior-philosopher-hero can be found in modern epics, such as “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Batman,” and so on. We may have moved away from Achilles’ grief, from the tales of King Arthur’s struggle to bring peace to England, from even the “Gods and Generals” of our own epic Civil War, but pop culture still serves our need for tales of unadulterated, selfless heroism.
Even on a practical level, such lessons may still be relevant. One of my students is now on his third tour of Afghanistan. He’s a smart guy, so he eventually ended up in charge of the day-to-day intelligence gathering from captured insurgents. He was quick to point out that the US Army doesn’t do waterboarding or torture. Instead, the military quickly re-discovered that the best way to get a prisoner to spill his guts was to treat him with honor and dignity. It was a technique first perfected in modern times by a German officer, of all people, during World War II. He interrogated captured British and American officers. As my student noted, that officer didn’t torture anyone. He simply sat down and offered food, coffee and cigarettes, and lent a sympathetic ear. He became, in an odd way, sort of like their new Best Friends Forever, albeit it was for the purposes of extracting military secrets. Before long, he had his prisoners unknowingly telling him all sorts of important information. His skill at parlaying his small acts of kindness into usable information was so good that during the postwar War Crimes trials, his former Allied prisoners became his staunchest defenders.
My student and his Army cohorts use the same concepts. The way to treat a prisoner, he said, is not to humiliate them (unlike what was done at Iraq’s Abu Graib Prison), not to torture, not to debase. Most of the insurgents have had a rough enough life already. Some are mentally retarded. Some are drugged out and forced to be suicide attackers. Some were sold into the Taliban by cash-strapped families. Only a few are hardcore fanatics. Most of them react best to human kindness and empathy, sometimes the first act of kindness they’ve ever received in years. Torture them and they will only tell you what you want to hear, not what may be the truth.
That is just one example of how lessons learned from classical warrior training and philosophy still have relevance. I could go on and on with other examples drawn from the historical record and from anecdotes I heard from veterans of war.
But basically, the way you survive, mentally as well as physically, is to have a secure set of values that enable you to see yourself not as a bully, aggressor or murderer, but as a warrior, with a set of values and ideals that set you apart from the terrorist, rapist and criminal. The classical bujutsu systems knew this, and trained you overtly and subliminally, in a value set. A lot of modern budo also attempt to do the same, although not all teachers and not all schools recognize this beyond giving lip service to those ideals.
As far as “sports” goes, however, what relevance does old-fashioned warrior attitudes have? Again, it depends. Perhaps the modern MMA style fighting is encouraging a kind of behavior in keeping with the subculture of the fans and its athletes. That’s their kuleana (property) then, and I shouldn’t butt in. If bad behavior sells, then go for it. It’s all about the money, after all.
I doubt, however, that if the sport’s businesspeople want to further expand the appeal of the sport and make even more money, they really should allow or encourage such behavior. It doesn’t make good business sense. A lot of parents will just frown on having such foul-mouthed, lewd and rude people serve as role models for their kids, who spend a lot of money on tickets and merchandising. That’s why big money sponsors of sports like professional basketball and football have clauses in players’ contracts that kick in if the athletes act badly. Acting like a jerk affects the bottom line. Even, I would hazard to opine, in a blood sport.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it? People forget that in America, “class” is not really a matter of your heritage or wealth. It’s how you comport yourself, and part of being willing to get an education is to learn, inevitably, what it means to have class. –As in having some common sense, common courtesy and propriety. Sometimes we forget that being “classless” means not having a social hierarchy based on accident of birth. You do not have to be born into some kind of warrior class to take on the noblest attributes of that ancient social class. You do not have to be uber wealthy to be magnanimous and charitable, or learn a bit of decorum and social etiquette, such as how to eat properly when at a restaurant that gives you cloth napkins instead of paper towels. Give me a break, I’m not Miss Manners, but it irks me to see kids at our college cafeteria hunch over their lunches, one hand surrounding their plate, the other holding their forks in a fist and shoveling food into their mouths and talking at the same time. And that’s just the girls. That’s like jailhouse etiquette; eating and making sure nobody steals your food or you’ll stab them in the eye with your fork.
In the case of that fighter, well, he’s a minor footnote in a sport that is struggling to gain repute and acceptance as a mainstream spectator sport. He’ll fade away sooner rather than later. The impact that he and others of his ilk have on youngsters, however, will last longer. Give me more time and I can harangue your eardrums about how bad behavior in pop culture icons lead directly to bad behavior in my teenage students at the college I teach at. It’s gotten to a point where I post copies of the Student Code of Conduct in each of my classes because, inevitably, I get one or two students who think it’s funny, creative or visually appealing to turn in digital art projects that are lewd, obscene, misogynistic, racist, sexist, abusive, full of illegal drug iconography, or violence-prone, with literally no redeeming social value. That’s their milieu. That’s the kind of pop culture they live in. But that’s not college, and that’s not showing class or intelligence. If they aspire to go beyond what their lives are, they need to learn a new way of thinking. Only a few days ago I had to zero out a student’s project grade because she turned in a web site design where the big photograph on her main page was of her giving the viewer a two-fisted middle finger salute. Like that’s funny, ha-ha. I had to explain to her how that was simply in poor taste, with no sense of composition, creativity or layout. And that obscenity does not equal creativity.
Much of classical bujutsu training is completely foreign to this kind of mentality. To think that one should have dignity and a sense of class! Who do we think we are? The sad thing is, many youngsters may have that pugnacious attitude but pop culture is conversely so full of attempts to strive towards a sense of such classiness: Jedi Knights, noble superheros, knights in shining armor, elegant elves with bows and arrows, samurai warriors. But so many youngsters forget that, as that old Spider-Man movie noted, “with great power comes great responsibility.” To become a hero, you have to act like one, not like a gangsta wannabe.
We think that being class-less means that we should forget about basic social etiquette and proper decorum all the time. That’s not classless. That’s just no class.