Compassion and the Martial Arts

I may not look it, but I’m a halfway decent martial artist.  Note: this doesn’t mean I’d be a good cage fighter or survive more than a round or so against a trained MMA fighter, but those aren’t things I’m really interested in doing anyway so it’s all good.  Over the past twenty five years or so I’ve studied Shodinji Do, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Kenjutsu, and Kenpo.  Looking back on it, it’s one of those “how the hell did I find time to do it all?” sorts of things.

Now, 2.5 decades later I can look back on my philosophy of fighting and ponder my reasons for starting and continuing to study.  I got bullied a lot in my youth and I think that may be part of why I started.  No matter how evolved you think you are a lot of what happened in your formative years will taint the rest of your life.  It’s very easy to say, “Just let it go,” but much, much harder to actually accomplish that goal.  Even though the Buddha may whisper to me to forgive and forget, it’s still on me to actually, you know, do it.

Here’s an interesting thing to notice for all you would-be martial artists out there and it’s a message that’s often bandied about but seldom implemented (at least in the arts I’ve studied); we like to say we’re doing this only for self defense but the things you can do to another person once you’ve been taught how to do them are pretty terrifying.  Of all my instructors over the years only one has really talked about that.  We were in Kenpo, looking at ways to break someone’s arm and really getting into it when the head of the school asked us if we thought we could actually do that; did any of us have the mental ability to actually hold someone’s arm and break it?

I’ve got a couple of friends who are former Marines and one of the things they’ve talked about was how it used to be difficult to get a soldier to point a gun at someone and pull the trigger.  Think that through for a moment.  These are soldiers, U.S. Marines (Semper Fi!), the baddest of the bad, and getting them to pull the trigger used to be one of the hardest things to teach.  Now, with a generation raised on first person shooters it’s apparently much easier to get a soldier to fire.

If that didn’t raise your eyebrow, go back and read it again.

Things like that are rarely discussed in the martial arts.  Granted, we’re not shooting anyone, but I did learn how cut someone from shoulder to hip with a katana and that’s a much more personal thing to do.  To this day, I wonder whether or not I could actually break someone’s knee in a fight if I had to.  It’s a quick and easy way to end a fight, probably forever for whoever’s knee just got broken, but it’s a pretty brutal thing to do.

But the bottom line is you’re taught to do just that, you practice doing just that, and when you’re in a stress situation and your brain turns to mush (as it is wont to do), you fall back on what you’ve practiced and pop goes the knee.

Unfortunately, there’s not much of a way around this.  Fighting is brutal, nasty stuff, and there’s always the fear that if you don’t do it to the other guy, he’s gonna gleefully do it to you.  And probably take your wallet, too.

So, how do we get around this problem?  I’ll grant, there may be times when breaking someone’s knee is the only way out of the situation but those times are extremely few and far between.  Most people want to avoid a fight.  This is usually what I tell the kids when I teach the Kenpo kid’s class: it’s always easier to avoid the fight than win the fight.  It’s an appeal to laziness but it’s better than a trip to the hospital.

What about the times you can’t avoid the fight?

Well, there’s almost always a way around an obstacle that doesn’t require going through it.  As the saying goes:



Okay, most o the time there’s a way to solve a problem without resorting to violence.  There will always be that person out there who absolutely will not stop.  It’s best to avoid those people but if it comes down to it, do what you need to do and get away quickly.  Beating that person to a pulp won’t solve the problem, it will just help you extricate yourself from the situation.

Most of the time, though…  Well, even if someone is spoiling for a fight it doesn’t mean you have to engage, at least not physically.  I like to regale students with a quick telling of Terry Dobson’s “A Soft Answer.”  The gist of the story is this: a man on a train winds up in a situation with a raging demon of a man.  Before the fight can begin, an old man engages by asking “What are you so angry about?”  Six simple words that completely defused the situation.  He jumped into the fight, but not in the violent way; he sought the way that would solve the root cause of the problem, rather than focusing on the surface problem.

That’s compassion right there.  It’s easy to say “I’m going to be compassionate to my fellow man” when your fellow man (or woman) isn’t actively screaming about beating you down.  When you can take the compassionate route when your life may be actively in danger… Well, that’s a whole other ballgame.

I haven’t been in a fight since Junior High and I often find myself wondering if I’d react as well that old man on the Tokyo train would.  Personally, I hope I never have to find out.

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