To all five or six of my readers (well, there’s actually several more, but it ain’t like I’m gonna be rich and famous from this blog!), Happy Holidays! …And many, many thanks for your replies, for reading my meandering posts, and for supporting my efforts at making comments on budo.
While in America the end-of-the-year season is primarily equated with the Christmas season, in Japan the biggest event has been (up to now; Christmas and gift-giving is catching on quick in Japan) New Year’s, as a time to reflect upon the past year, to hope for the New Year, and to give thanks, or kansha, to everything that has helped you to survive another tumultuous year.
It’s a nice tradition, one that we can easily dovetail into whatever religion we may believe in, or even if we’re atheists. Take a moment to reflect upon all the help that people, things and sentient beings have given you and elicit in yourself a spirit of thankfulness.
Perhaps in a modern martial arts world dominated by the machismo sports characterization, we don’t tend to focus on such sentiments, but we should. Always burning up the adrenaline, pumping up our testosterone, and working on our aggressive behavior may lead to too much stress and strain on our hearts and minds.
In martial arts, an emphasis is rightly placed on developing combative skills, whether they are archaic, sports-oriented, or combative, or a combination of two or more of these skills. Developing a combative and/or sportive mental attitude is usually the order of the day in training. But at the beginning and end of a traditional budo training session, there is always the requisite bowing. It’s not just a meaningless act. You are supposed to truly be thankful that you are healthy and fit enough to engage in training, and thankful that you have training partners, teachers and equipment necessary for the development of your mind and body. At the end, again you give thanks and also relief that your partners, teachers and equipment kept you safe and in one piece.
That’s kind of a paradox, isn’t it? In randori or kumite, sometimes it seems like you’re about to take off somebody’s head, or your partner is about to do the same to you. Even in some classical koryu kata, with predeterimined moves, it can feel pretty hairy and scary. Yet, at the end of avoiding getting poked, or trying to poke somebody with a sharp stick, you have to give thanks.
The balance is necessary, according to Asian philosophical concepts of balance, of the Yin and Yang of things. Too much aggressive intent, even in martial arts, without a leavening of thankfulness and appreciation of one’s fellow human beings, will lead to a bowstring that is too taut, too tight, to ready to snap and break at the slightest pull.
Have you ever visited a dojo where it’s as quiet as a church (and I’m not talking about a black Southern Baptist Revival church choir), save for the slam of bodies falling, the kiai and barked commands and rote replies? …Where the only voice is the sensei’s, as he shouts his commands and the students obediently follow without hesitation or humor? Folks, (to borrow a phrase from Joel Salatin, a curmudgeon of the first degree who writes about farming and foods), that ain’t natural.
In the oldest koryu traditions, including the one I’ve personally participated in, there’s discipline, yes. There’s really hard training. But there’s laughter. There’s questions and answers, there’s smiles in between earnest grimaces and gasps when a particular lock proves effective. There’a whole range of emotions and verbal discussions as teachers and students work on understanding the methods and kata as best they can, physically, mentally and emotionally, and it often necessitates a lot of verbal dialogues.
There’s also a friendly dose of mutual respect and thankfulness, from teacher to students, students to teacher, and students to students. In a healthy dojo, the competition is primarily within oneself, trying to make one’s own self better. You treat those below you with respect, as younger brothers and sisters, and you should feel charged with the responsibility of bringing them up to speed, not using them like easy targets and living punching bags. A “traditional” dojo that encourages aggressive competition within its students to the point of physical malice breaking out is dysfunctional to the extreme.
A grateful attitude should permeate every training session. But at the end of the year, thought should be doubly given to how those around you have helped you positively to become what you are: your parents, teachers, family and friends, your God or the universe or some lucky strands of DNA that coalesced to form you. Send positive thoughts their way, give thanks in whatever form you adhere to (prayers, mental post-it notes, cards and letters, well wishes, thoughts, tweets), but most of all, FEEL the feeling of gratefulness, of kansha.
In budo, like other physical endeavors, the interconnected factors of space and time (rhythm and timing) are crucial. In Japanese, the term for “space,” in between objects and opponents is “ma,” and the character can also be pronounced “aida,” as in “in between.” It is the space “in between” yourself and your opponent, the empty field that defines the potential of attack and defense, the ma-ai(the “meeting” space). Like music, however, “empty space” between notes or opponents aren’t “empty” in a sense that there’s nothing there. Potential is there. Fullness is there. Emptiness is necessary for fullness. Spaces between individual notes creates a song, its tension and melody. Space between adversaries define the field in which they fight, and the person who can control the space (and time) best is the one who wins.
An understanding of ma-ai (the proper distancing) is important, but many martial artists of even respectively high levels in their specific art aren’t aware of it beyond their particular specializations. Worse, kata-based training (especially when done individually, such as in karate kata and iaido) may make a person ignorant of proper ma-ai.
I thought of that the other night as I was watching my iai students go through their kata, and I felt that they weren’t thinking about what they were really doing. They were just going through the motions, like automatons. I had them put aside their metal swords, pick up wooden swords, and pair off. One person would go through the first form, for example, rising up out of seiza and then cutting horizontally at his partner, who sat five feet away, holding his wooden sword vertically in front of him. The intent was that they were to cut right at about the height of the partner’s temple, were his head at the bokken distance.
On first attempt, most of them missed. Then they were to slide forward as their partner slid backwards and raised his bokken horizontally just above the top of his head with two hands, striking downwards as in a head strike. Some of them missed by not sliding forward enough, others overshot and struck the horizontal bokken with the bottom edge of their wooden blade.
We went through the first four kata and the performance were pretty much just as bad. They weren’t paying attention in their individual kata exercises and it showed when they tried to do the forms against an actual target at a specific distance.
The strength of “free form” or “sparring” in some martial arts is that in working with a partner in a fluid, ever-changing exercise, you can learn to adjust automatically to an opponent’s timing and space, unlike what can happen in such individual kata-based training such as described above. And, lest I paint iaido and karatedo too broadly, that is why there are kumite forms and free sparring in karatedo, and paired bokken kata in our iai style. Doing things solo all the time may make you look great, but it all goes to heck if you don’t know about proper distancing.
However, specialization such as in sportive martial arts can also lead to a narrow understanding of ma-ai. The mai-ai a judoka will be comfortable with, for example, is primarily that of gripping the opponent standing up, or grappling on the ground. It’s a very close ma-ai. Put the judoka at a distance comfortable for a karateka, and the judoka will feel uncomfortable and out of his league, and will attempt to quickly close the gap. Conversely, get a karate person on the ground, pressing gi to gi, and many may panic out of lack of familiarity with that fighting distance.
In modern composite martial arts, such as MMA, where fistic, kicking and grappling elements are all allowed, the ability to adjust to different distances is perhaps more obviously part of the training.
The problem there though, is what modern self-defense and classical martial training realizes: that grappling and punching-kicking distance awareness is not enough. What if the attacker held a weapon? That’s a totally different ma-ai.
There’s an article that Diane Skoss, of Koryu Books, wrote about being a woman training in koryu budo. She made a comment that, even after years of aikido, she never understood mai-ai very well until she started weapons work in koryu. Then all of a sudden, she had to deal with opponents who came at her with short staffs, long staffs, naginata, spears, swords and all sorts of weapons, long and short.
Such training gave her an innate understanding of the elastic, variable nature of ma-ai, dependant on the situation, attacker, angle and weapon.
That is why, I suspect, that Okinawan karate and aikido included some kind of weapons training in their curriculum. Even Kodokan Judo had weapons work, but discarded them as it evolved into more of a specialized sport, and less of a martial system. If you don’t get out of your comfort zone in ma-ai, you won’t understand proper distancing. So this is an argument, in a way, for studying weapons if you are primarily a grappler or puncher-kicker.
In classical systems, there are various terms to explain ma-ai. The most common are the three different terms of toh-ma, uchi-ma, and chika-ma to denote the three basic distances. Depending on the weapons (or lack thereof), toh-ma is when the distance is too far (toh- is from the word for “far away,” toh-i) for you or the opponent to strike, unless you take steps to close the gap. Although you can begin to engage the enemy at that distance, you won’t be struck easily.
Chika-ma is when you are too close to effect the proper attack in your style or using your weapon. For example, what may be just right for a grappler (skin to skin on the ground) is much too much chika-ma for a swordsman, who would need enough space in between to swing or thrust his long sword.
Uchi-ma is the perfect striking distance. For swordsmen (and these three terms are derived from mostly bladed systems), uchi-ma is when you can take just one step forward and strike your opponent. If using a sword, the sharpest cutting part of the blade, the first third at the tip, will strike the opponent. If the bottom two-thirds strikes the opponent, you are too close.
Uchi-ma is a dangerous situation to be in, because if you can hit the opponent, the opponent can also hit you. So you have to nullify that by striking quickly before the opponent can strike, moving out of distance, or attempting a tactical maneuver, ruse or changing the angle to make it hard for the opponent to strike you while you can strike at the opponent at will.
In one school that I studied, the proper striking distance is described as issoku-ittou; or one-step, one strike. In other words, the effective combative attack distance is when you can take one step and strike immediately.
The problem with ma-ai is that there are so many variables. Not just in terms of weaponry, but also in terms of rhythm and timing, angles of attack and positioning of the attacker and you. All of these will affect proper ma-ai. Space and time are not separate entities. They interact with each other.
While we’ve been discussing the physical tactics of handling space, we can’t also forget the mental/psychological and psychic overlay of spacing. In esoteric doctrines in some sword schools, even standing at a distance, you have a kind of mental uchi-ma; i.e., you can still be too far for a quick strike with your sword, but if your spirit and energy is strong enough, you can already attack the opponent.
I’m not talking about the overblown fakery of many “ki” or “chi” masters who claim they can knock someone out with a wave of their hands. Such claims, as far as I’ve seen on YouTube videos, have usually proven to be more about group hypnosis and the power of suggestion than actual martial prowess. I’m talking about focus and attitude that can overwhelm an opponent’s own fighting spirit from a distance. …Sort of like psyching out the opponent before you even start a fight.
Think of it this way: according a fictionalized account of the swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, Musashi already attacked his nemesis Sasaki Kojiro even before their swords met on Ganryujima. Kojiro, impatient at Musashi’s tardiness, yanked his sword out and threw away his scabbard in frustration, yelling at Musashi for being late to the death-duel.
Musashi just smiled and said, “You’ve already lost, Kojiro.”
Kojiro demanded to know what Musashi meant, and Musashi calmly said, “Only someone who knows he’ll never be alive to put his sword back into the scabbard will throw it away.”
That drove Kojiro into an even greater rage and he ran at Musashi, throwing aside all strategies and schemes. Musashi had unbalanced Kojiro’s mental attitude, striking him from a distance using psychology. Musashi knew that while he was still too far away to physically strike Kojiro, he could use his wiles to strike at Kojiro’s mental state.
This gets into more esoteric concepts, of which different classical ryuha will have different things to say, based on their own theories and approaches to combat.
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.
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.
When I scanned my Facebook page one recent morning, I found a photo posted by a former art student of mine. It was a delightful, relaxed picture of him with his mother, both smiling at the camera. Then I read his post and was saddened to learn that his mother had just passed away from cancer.
I first met the irrepressible Jiho and his mother when they came to Hawaii from South Korea. The mother, a concert pianist, doted on her son and daughter, but Jiho was constantly getting into trouble in school. He simply did not fit into the Korean educational system. He was like the proverbial round peg being banged into a square hole, and he rebelled at every turn. Yet, the mother felt Jiho had artistic talent, and asked me, as the head of the visual arts program in a school for gifted and talented artists, to take him into the program.
She showed me some of the drawings he did. They were impressive. In Korea, she explained, high school art teachers were big on copying by rote, not so much developing creative problem solving skills. So Jiho’s drawings were studies of still lifes, Rennaissance masters, and the like. Impressive work. Maybe not so creative, but impressive for a youngster. So I took him on with a caveat. I explained to the mother that our program was rigorous, but not like Korean art classes. We try to get students to be artistically creative. She nodded her head and said, as a professional artist, she knew what I meant, and promised her son would do good in our school.
I later learned that the mother sacrificed everything for Jiho. She gave up her career and uprooted her son and daughter to move to the States, leaving her businessman husband, in order to give her son a second chance at life. She thought that, if left in Korea, Jiho would probably end up in jail because he was so rebellious. America and our school was her last chance to steer him away from his downward spiral.
Jiho’s mother opened a small Korean restaurant and worked long hours so she could make ends meet and pay the tuition for her children’s private school.
Jiho, indeed, was a handful. I could see why a repressive educational system would have tried to hammer him down. He was always full of joyful energy, making art, making friends, unafraid of trying new media, new adventures, and asking question after question. Back in Korea, he said, he used to constantly be hit in the head and physically disciplined by his teachers for talking out of turn or trying to do something unconventional, and he rebelled against that. In our school, however, he blossomed. Allowed to let his creative juices flow, he diverted most of his energy to his artwork, not getting into too much trouble. The other art teachers and I mentored him through the years, and when it came time for him to apply to college, he got a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design, a prestigious art school on the East Coast. He ended up working at various Internet startups as a digital artist and web designer, and become, in his adulthood, a much sought-after, creative, hard-working professional.
Art must have run in the family because his younger sister also had natural artistic talent, albeit she was more self-controlled and circumspect. She went on to FIT, Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York City. Upon Jiho’s and her daughter’s graduations, the mother was so ecstatic that, in Korean tradition, she gave me a token gift of sweets and a card thanking me for all that I did for her children.
Eventually, the mother moved to the East Coast to be near her children, and opened up a small restaurant there. Her own dreams of playing piano and pursuing her art were given up for her children’s sake, an experience familiar to many, many first-generation immigrant families.
So it was with sadness that I read of her passing. Yet, she must have died happy that her children were doing alright, after all that she had sacrificed for them.
I wrote a short note to Jiho expressing my condolences, and Jiho replied, saying how much his mom still remembered me and was grateful for what I did for her kids.
What does this have to do with martial arts?
Well, the passing of Jiho’s mother made me contemplate the nature of a teacher and a student, and the relationship thereof. No one replaces one’s parents, and no one can replace a child in terms of family bonds.
Yet, as a Chinese proverb says, “A teacher for one day is like a parent for a lifetime.”
In Asian societies, a good teacher is nearly as important as one’s parents. A loving parent gives a child life, nurtures the child, protects, and raises the child up. Nothing can replace that. But likewise, nothing can replace an inspirational teacher who guides the child and gives the child the tools of the trade, craft or art as a gift. Confucian culture calls attention to the personal bond that should exist between a good teacher and a good student, stressing that it is among the core human relationships that should be nurtured and fostered among human beings.
Oh, I’ve also had incredible failures as a teacher, too. I handled some situations very, very badly. I learned how imperfect I truly am. In my defense, I would say that I learned hard lessons from such experiences, which helped me to become a better teacher, both in art and in martial arts.
That has led me to realize that there are students who are truly students of mine, and a greater bulk of students who are merely “passing through” my dojo or my digital art classroom. The relationship of teacher and student is a two way street. If a student is truly willing to absorb the lessons, if a student has what is called nyuunanshin, or a willing mind, he becomes a lifelong student and friend of the teacher, something beyond just someone who steps into a classroom to pick up a point or two. And if the teacher is willing and capable, he can leave a deep and positive impression on students that will last a lifetime.
My own incongruous mentor is a Japanese anthropology instructor from my college days. I say incongruous because I daresay that I was a middling student in college. Still, for some reason, we kept in touch as I continued on with my graduate degree and my continued participation in various Japanese cultural activities. He offered advice and commentary on my endeavors in my cultural activities, and when I embarked on a teaching career, we continued our correspondence, comparing notes on the experiences of teaching college. Whenever he and his wife stopped in Hawaii, we would try to go out for dinner. It’s been about 35 years since I graduated from college, but we’ve kept in touch for all that time.
In the same way, thanks to the Internet, I’ve found it easy to stay in touch with some students of mine who continue to email me now and then to tell me about their progress. Rie wanted to become an artist and go to college on the Mainland USA but her Japanese father thought, as a girl, she should not have such lofty ambitions. When she got accepted into my alma mater, Cornell University, I had to try to convince her father that it was a very good thing. Only when his coworkers began to congratulate him about his daughter making it into a very high-class university did he relent and allow his daughter to go to the East Coast.
Rie eventually followed in my footsteps, attended Cornell, then finished with a degree in architecture, interned in London, worked in New York, and is now pursuing a graduate degree.
In like manner, I have a couple of budo students who I look at as truly my students, or deshi. They learned the technical aspects of the system, but also spent a lot of time with me, hiking, eating together, getting to know our respective families, and keeping in touch. We trained in parks and rec centers, banged each other around, attended each other’s weddings, listened to each other’s sob stories. Perhaps the ones who have moved away still see me as a teacher, but like my old art students, they also see me as an old friend, an advisor, a mentor.
What I have learned, though, is that such a relationship cannot be forced. It arises only naturally between a student willing to participate and give it his/her all to master the subject, and a teacher willing to give more than the required investment in time and attention to the student. In that situation, the bond will arise naturally or not at all.
I would postulate that such a personal bond would be hard to develop in the modern strip mall dojo, however diligently one tries to artificially create it. If a teacher has over 100 students he has to attend to at each training session, how can he truly give enough attention to each student so that they develop an in-depth relationship? That’s like saying a guy can have a serious relationship with 100 women at the same time. It ain’t gonna happen. It’s hard enough to develop a sincere relationship with one social partner at a time.
When it does arise, it is a wonderful thing. It creates a human bond that is what I imagine the old sensei-deshi system must have been like “back in the day,” a bond that is referred to in so many plotlines of corny kung-fu martial arts movies, but one you so seldom see in actuality. Think of the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” in which Chow Yun Fat tries to teach the young Ziyi Zhang. Theirs is not a “romantic” relationship; the Chow Yun Fat character is really in love with the Michelle Yeoh character. But the bond of teacher/student between Chow Yun Fat’s character and Ziyi Zhang’s impetuous character is just as emotional. The student-teacher relationship, I reiterate, is a bond that is as important, in Confucianism, as that between a parent and child, a friend to friend, a husband and wife, or oneself to one’s ancestors.
I compare that to the attitude some teachers and students have of the educational experience. To them, it’s just a business transaction. You pay your money, you get something in return. There’s no personal buy-in. If you don’t get what you want, you complain and sue the bastards. I’ve had too many of those experiences, where parents will complain about their children getting bad grades when they’re “paying damn good money” so Johnny or Jane (no matter if they are lazy-ass sloths in class, had BETTER get a good grade, no matter whether they’re learning or not.
In a martial arts context, it’s like a student who wants to learn all the kata and get all the degree promotions, but isn’t willing to help other students, listen to the teacher’s advice on trying to correct some nuances of their performance, or give of himself other than pay the tuition and fees. It’s all a business transaction for that kind of student.
Such a student may, perhaps, become proficient in the technical aspect of the art, but they’ll never understand the heart of the art, which is passed from teacher to student, person to person, and heart to heart, in a bond that extends for a lifetime.
It was, as I recall, one of those hot, humid, oppressive summer days that Kyoto is known for, when just standing in the shade will elicit buckets of perspiration. We were taking a sorely needed break from training and drinking iced tea in the little meeting room in the back of the dojo, gathered around a low table with a hibachi burner set in it, and I absent mindedly picked up a Kendo Nippon magazine that had been left on the table. I flipped through the pages and found a photograph of a rather well-known teacher demonstrating a short, bladed weapon. I showed the photograph to my sensei.
“Oh, him,” he said, nonchalantly as he gulped down his iced tea and glanced at the photograph. “He’s okay. But he doesn’t understand the riai of that weapon.” Then he turned away to talk with another student.
I was somewhat taken aback, because I knew this teacher had a whole big crop of students in Western countries waxing eloquent about his masterful techniques. I thought, cynically, that perhaps there might be a bit of professional jealousy in my sensei’s rather blithe, off-the-cuff statement. Or, perhaps, he could be right. I couldn’t tell at the time.
However, some ten years later, I was engaged in some impromptu, informal cross-training with a senior instructor of another koryu, and in the course of our talking in between physical training, we somehow got on the subject of this teacher. Without my prodding, he said, “Oh, yeah. Well, X sensei is okay. But he’s like a journeyman teacher. He can teach the techniques but he really doesn’t understand the real riai.”
Amazed, I told the instructor that my own sensei used the very same words in describing that teacher. “Huh!” he replied. “Well, I guess great minds think alike!”
So inasmuch as Chuck Clark prodded me to talk about riai, I was somewhat hesitant, because I myself am still wrestling with the core riai of my own style. I wouldn’t want to have the same rep as that teacher.
On the other hand, while it may be really hard for me to discuss the particular, individual riai of my own styles of budo, I may be able to say something about the general notion of what riai is. I think. Well, let’s see…
My trusty Nelson kanji dictionary defines the two kanji that make up the word as meaning “reason,” or “ri-“ (principle, truth) with “coming together, meeting, or harmonizing (“-ai”). In other words, in budo, riai is the underlying principles behind a technique. That’s as simple an explanation as I can give, and in most cases, that’s enough. Riai, in a way, is similar to the word bandied about frequently in karatedo schools: bunkai (analysis, reduction, parsing). (However, as the Nelson translated meanings make clear, they are somewhat different.)
In any case, on a superficial level, riai is simply explanation of the “meaning” of a technique or waza.
Okay, Grasshopper, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop right now, right? It can’t be as simple as all that.
So here it is. That defination of riai is good enough for most students. Certainly, for the average middle-class, suburban kid taking a kurrottee class in a shopping mall dojo, it’s plenty sufficient. We’re talking about students whose willingness to alter his/her mental, emotional and spiritual attitudes to delve further into the culture and ethos of combative arts as precariously limited, after all, so there’s nothing wrong with stopping there and letting them enjoy the experience, if that’s what the dojo is aiming for.
“Ya step forward and do a jodanzuki, which means you close the gap and punch the guy in the face! That’s the riai!” yells the sempai. Makes sense to me, the kid thinks. And for a maturity level and understanding of a preteen, maybe that’s all he/she can absorb. So let’s not be too harsh. For a lot of folk, that’s all they need. Step, punch, kick. Make some noise. Go home and don’t think about it until next practice.
Or, let’s say you’re in an aikido workshop and there’s some 50-plus people in attendance, with varying skill levels. You explain a kote-gaeshi technique. The guy grabs your right wrist with his right hand, and so you throw him down. The riai? Well, the guy is grabbing you so you throw him by stepping a certain way and twisting his wrist, forcing him to either take a tumble or you dislocate his wrist and elbow. For a large audience of mixed levels of understanding, that should suffice.
But let’s take apart the notion that riai is an understanding of very, very core principles. In fact, if you were to drill down into that one technique, you would come up with some pretty heavy duty core principles that underly all of aikido.
First of all, why in heck are we starting that way? I mean, why let the guy get close enough to grab you, and then why does uke grab your wrist? One criticism non-aikido folk make of the art is that it’s “impractical,” it relies on the notion that people will grab your wrist, or take these huge, arcing swings at you with an open palm, like a sword attack. If somebody nowadays wants to fight with you, they don’t attack like that, critics say. They’ll come at you with boxing punches, or be hunched over and try to grab you MMA-style, or kick you…
The mistake critics make is based on a lack of understanding that the kote-gaeshi forms not only teach a particular reaction to a particular attack (a wrist grab), it teaches a generalized reaction to many forms of attack, be it a grab, punch, or kick: irimi, contact, control the attacker and control the timing and distance, become the center of the movement, and execution of a defense that renders the attacker unable to counter, in fact the attacker is yanked off balance by his own momentum. Understand these general principles in kote-gaeshi, and you begin to see a glimmer of insight into nearly all the other kata of aikido. Miss it, and no matter how many forms you know, you are still not doing aikido right, because you don’t really understand the riai.
The same, I would hazard, goes for for karatedo, or any other budo. If you don’t understand the core principles behind the art, your techniques won’t look coherent. You’ll be doing something, but there won’t be a unity or cohesiveness. The techniques will look like disparate, unrelated actions. It will look choppity-chop.
On the other hand, the mistake defenders of aikido often make is they try to defend the particular method (like defending against the wrist-grab) and not stressing the riai, or core principles, that the particular form teaches. Sure, maybe you don’t see a lot of wrist grabs in a MMA bout. But you do see some fighters attempting some Muhammad Ali-type slipping and entering to counterpunch, some sophisticated fighters with jujutsu training using rudimentary but effective principles of disbalancing and control, distancing, and attempts to control and put pressure on the opponent’s joints. Those are core aikido principles, and are the riai to aikido, only in a different, more pugnacious expression.
But why grab at all then? I think here’s where to understand the riai, you need to have a cultural perspective as well as a technical one. Aikido was founded by Ueshiba Morihei. His main jujutsu teacher was Takeda Sokaku, who taught Daito-ryu. Sokaku was a formidable swordsman, and Ueshiba also had grounding in many weapons arts. As someone who came out of classical jujutsu and kenjutsu, Ueshiba might have been teaching what he thought was a breakthrough, novel approach to budo, but his thinking had a heavy imprint from older, classical martial arts. And one of the main axioms of jujutsu schools was that, before the age of guns, the most formidable attacker you might face if you were unarmed was a swordsman. Sure, spears or halberds could kill you too, but swords were really scary. Imagine a two-foot long razor coming at you. Even a shorter tanto or wakizashi could hurt like the Dickens. And “back in the day,” a lot of people carried some kind of bladed weapon around for self-defense, if not for status. A person bent on violence would just as soon cut you than punch or grapple with you.
So, if you were going to attack someone, what was the biggest worry? His sword hand, his right hand, would grab his sword and cut you in retaliation. Hence, you’d grab his right hand first, nullify it, and then punch him, kick him, slap him or dance with him. Whatever. Maybe, if you grabbed him with your left, you could draw out your own sword with your right hand. Just don’t give the guy a chance to draw his sword out.
The fear of the opponent drawing his sword out was why a lot of attacks in jujutsu begin with a wrist grab, and why it carried over into aikido. That’s what an attacker might do, way back in the old days.
Seen in that light, the reason why so many attacks by uke in aikido are those large, somewhat “unrealistic” swings with a knife-hand is that they replicate a sword attack.
The riai, therefore, can be superficial: it can mean, well, here’s the guy grabbing your hand. So you turn, twist his wrist and throw him. That’s what it means. Period. End of story.
Or, you would have to dig deeper and deeper. WHY is uke going for your hand instead of trying to wrestle you down? Because in principle, in the old days, if his right hand was free, he’ll just take out his dagger or sword and stab you.
Now that we have that explained, why twist-turn and throw? You could just as well punch uke in the face and run away. Well, because uke could just as well have a very tough jaw and when you’re running away, there’s nothing to stop him from chasing after you and continuing his attack. Plus, by training in aikido, you might be able to subdue the attacker without resorting to methods that would lead to permanent damage. So you need to learn methods that will deflect the attack and then control the attacker in a substantial way, without putting yourself too much at risk. You are committing to trying to end the violence, not run away from the violence. That is, I think, a fundamental principle in aikido that even many aikido people don’t understand. Aikido may espouse “blending” and “peaceful” budo, but it doesn’t mean you run away from violence or allow yourself to be destroyed by it. It means you face aggression and meet it with redirection and blending, not giving in to violence and laying down and dying.
So you learn entering methods, or “irimi.” He grabs, you move off the center line and enter to a side, creating a new line of movement and direction, but without giving him an advantage. Rather, by entering, you render his frontal attacks more awkward. Whether it’s a right-hand-grab, a punch, uraken or kick, the PRINCIPLE of irimi will still hold true. Enter by slipping in. Aikido impractical? How many boxers would give their eye teeth to become really good at slipping a punch to the outside?
As you enter, you use your movement and the attacker’s own momentum to help pull the attacker off balance (like judo’s kuzushi principle) even before you execute the throw. The twist of the wrist is only the topping to the cake, which is the total body-control and disbalancing, and includes pressure on the attacker’s elbow joint and shoulder.
In kata form during a regular aikido session the throw can seem suspiciously lacking in brute force to really work, but that’s the way you learn the principle of maximum efficiency with the least amount of exertion (another judo principle, actually). If you can do the technique with a maximum use of body movement, irimi, kuzushi, angle and timing, then you are focusing on technique, and refining your technical abilities, and using a minimum of brute strength. Strength, as the saying goes, can of course enter the picture, but much, much later after you have figured out the more important (and harder to acquire) parts of the technique.
What you might find, if you practice kote-gaeshi long enough, is that the entering, disbalancing and joint pressure/throw can be applied in different situations, in different counters, and in different applications, IF you truly understand the underlying riai, or principles deeply enough. Consider that a leg is simply another kind of mammalian limb, like the arm. So you can apply the PRINCIPLES of a kote-gaeshi on even a front kick. Or a jab, or a grab to the head. It’s just that aikido started with a wrist grab due to cultural baggage, and it’s a good way to start still now, in the present day. But for the curious, consider looking at variations, perhaps after regular practice. I’m sure you’ll find it will still work. A kote-gaeshi can work against a karate-style stepping punch, if done with proper timing and disbalancing. What if it’s a jab and the arm is retracted too quickly for grabbing? Did I say you only had to grab the wrist? There are other parts of the body (other arm, neck, upper arm, etc.) you can grab, disbalance and apply pressure to in order to knock the person off balance.
Core principles of a martial art were once often contained not just in the first few kata and the most advanced kata, but also in succinct, but mysterious, poems and sayings. Muso Gonnosuke was supposed to have figured out how to create the Shinto Muso-ryu jo when a vision told him to “Seek the suigetsu with a log.”
That one simple phrase may, in fact, contain the core principle behind most of the jo methods, if you know what they are.
Our own Takeuchi-ryu has several poems and sayings that are supposed to aid us in understanding our methodology. The longer I trained in the ryu, the more I realized that, like other martial arts, the key to really getting good at it was to constantly go over the first basic kata and keep on trying to perfect them. The moves contained the entrée to all the other subsequent kata.
Then I finally was taught the “okuden” jujutsu methods, or the “secret” techniques that were the foundations for our entire grappling curriculum. These turned out to be extremely effective, but simple, general principles that, in some ways, returned you to the beginning, but with new insight in the mental and attitudinal states of mind. However, the only way to really grasp the okuden techniques was to have a solid understanding of the riai of the most simplest, most basic kata in our school.
Just as kote-gaeshi is a foundational technique in aikido, there are foundational techniques in other martial arts that, if properly understood, will enable an understanding into the riai not just of that technique, but of the entire curriculum. And the wonderful thing about understanding riai is the discovery that it can go from a simple notion to great complexity, but in the complexity there is a beautiful simplicity, if understood correctly.
Here’s a really nice resource. You can download PDF versions of some rare, out-of-print books (mostly on Okinawan karate) courtesy of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Okinawan Collection. The books are part of an ongoing project by my friend, Charles Goodin, and the Hawaii Karate Museum. Charles collected many, many priceless books related to martial arts and then donated them for proper storage and safekeeping to the University of Hawaii. I was proud to be a very small part in putting together a show that highlighted his donated collection a couple of years ago at the UH’s Hamilton Library.
There are many philosophical, mental and attitudinal elements in learning traditional, classical budo. More so, I think, when learning a koryu, which is much more intricately tied to traditional Japanese culture.
One of the concepts I think many of my own students still have a hard time wrapping their heads around is the notion of ken and kan, or literally translated, “seeing” and “feeling.”
To elaborate: in learning a traditional Japanese art, such as a koryu, there are things you can learn by “seeing,” i.e., through a visible, clear, rationalistic learning process, and things you need to learn to intuit, or “feel.”
Most of modern budo, although not all and not all teachers of modern budo, are often very good at the former teaching pedagogy. They take apart a kata or a method and in clear, logical terms, talk about the physical and technical structure of the movement and the results thereof. In large part, this rationalism is a reaction against what was perceived as a haphazard, archaic way of training that stereotyped the koryu when the modern budo were formulated.
To a degree, such criticisms of koryu might have been valid. But I have to wonder, after decades of training in both koryu and modern budo, if it’s a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There’s something to be said for developing a sense of intuition in martial arts.
The longer I train, the more I realize that there’s an ineffable, intuitive, inexplicable aspect to budo. I don’t mean the woo-woo mystical “wave your hands and the guy will fall down” mumbo jumbo. I mean aspects of a koryu martial art that are really, really hard to explain in logical, verbal terms, aspects that cannot quite yet be captured and exposed clearly in digital media such as videos, books or photographs. It’s a feeling. A mood. A kind of tension, timing and subtle movement, spacing and distancing that can best be felt, but not yet explained easily in words.
“Ken” comes from another way to pronounce the Japanese verb “to see,” miru. Seeing with one’s eyes is symbolic of logical, rational thought processes. You see a technique, you try to repeat it overtly with your own body movements. It’s all there in front of you to see.
In contrast, “kan” comes from the verb “kanjiru,” or “to feel, to sense.” In koryu, it’s not just a matter of physical aping. It’s a matter of understanding very subtle body dynamics, spacing, timing, rhythm, distancing, breath, angle of entry and evasion. I can explain these terms individually, but putting them all together into one seamless whole requires not just rational cognitive learning skills, but also a “sense” of how they fit. This calls for intuition, “feeling.”
This is not to denigrate the ability to see what’s in front of you clearly. It is to emphasize that the ability to learn rationally and empirically is just one component of the mental training process. The other necessary part is learning to develop one’s intuition.
It may be that the ability to ken and kanjiru are two sides of the same coin; the two are actually fluid terms, and the rational and intuitive need to flow one into the other, like the Yin and Yang of Taoist philosophy complimenting each other. You need both.
Indeed, I’ve seen where students have a hard time grasping the essentials; the basic, signature movements of the koryu school. If you can’t process which foot goes ahead of which foot, then all the intuition and “feel” in the world won’t help you. You need the rational, step-by-step essentials. But I’ve also seen cases where I’ve seen some students in my school and in other koryu demonstrate, and I’d turn to an acquaintance and we’d agree, “That guy has got the moves and order right, but he still hasn’t got it.”
–“IT” being that underlying “feel” of a true practitioner of the style, who can MOVE like a Takeuchi-ryu person, or a Shinto Muso-ryu Jo person, or a Tenshin Sho Katori Shinto-ryu person. Each koryu has a particular kind of fun’iki, or “feel,” and if you watch the really good practitioners, no matter how their own body morphology and personal character shapes their movements, there’s something about their kata that is imbued with the style. They got it. It’s in their heart as well as mind. The person who doesn’t get it may have used half his brain to learn the moves, but he hasn’t used his other half of his brain to intuit the “feel” of the style.
In a way, it’s like listening to a computer voice try to read a line from Shakespeare. Computers nowadays are so powerful they do a decent job of being able to read text and turn it into acceptable audio readings. But computers, and even most people, still can’t compare to a trained Shakespearean actor reading the Bard’s lines. Both can read the text. But only the accomplished actor (so far) can raise the bare lines to heights of grandeur worthy of Shakespeare through his “feel” for the words and his experience, and knowledge of artistic timing, pitch, meter and rhythm.
So the danger some martial artists have is that they see their art as stopping at the workmanlike practicality of robotic movements. They don’t “feel” the art yet. They need to get more Shakespearean.
Folks, a really great blog site by Chris “Kit” LeBlanc: http://prevailtraining.wordpress.com
Kit focuses on themes related to combatives for law enforcement and active military officers, but many of his musings on combat are relevent to the themes and ideas developed in koryu.
(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.