August 19, 2009

Doing is what counts

From a friend ...

I've been reading the blog (always a pleasure to do so, thanks for taking the time to share your observations) and was intrigued by your recent posting on 4th July. As you point out, the preamble to the declaration sets out what we might call american values including equal concern for life, liberty etc. These values add up to a sort foundationalism which is antithetical to moral relativism.

The bit I was surprised by when you said that you thought these certainties were closely aligned with those of the warrior. Moral relativism (not in a pejorative sense, but in the sense of pragmatism and an aversion to making strong claims about 'truth' - you'd never say 'this technique or kamae will always work', right?) seems be part of the bujinkan - I mean that I hadn't ever though of it as containing hard and fast certainties, hence my suprise.

I had always valued bujinkan for this (perceived, admittedly) pragmatic/instrumental spirit - instead of wasting time asking 'what is the truth (moral or otherwise)?' or, it seems to ask 'what works?' or 'what is useful?' Am I mistaken? Do you think I'm drawing a false distinction? Is it the case that we can have moral certainty about our values but be pragmatic about how we realise them?

I got bullied when I was nine - a kid kicked me right off my bike. It sucked. I went home and cried. So, I took a Karate course in town. That's what started me. And 30 years later, it is a question that still fascinates me, because no matter how many variations on its answer I hear, I come to the same conclusion. Why do we begin training martial arts? I have never heard a single answer - self-defense, fitness, spiritual refinement, whatever - that cannot be reduced to a single idea: fear. We begin training martial arts - all of us, everyone - because we're afraid. The innate fear of vulnerability, lack of belief in ourselves, the idea we will not make it, are core fears. Everyone is afraid of something. Our genetic code is infused with 10,000 years of cautious survival that doesn't disappear just because we get a Yahoo! account.

So, if fear is the deep-down reason we begin, then why do we continue? Easy. To dispel that fear. But knowing martial arts is simply not enough, we need to comprehend we can use them when we need to. It is that confidence which is empowering. Does this mean we'll never be afraid? Of course not. It means in spite of being afraid, we'll be able to do the right thing. And doing is what counts.

What good is having all the money in the world, if we don't know when to spend it? In other words, if we don't know what's important enough to spend it on? How hard does Bill Gates think about what to spend his money on? Is he concerned by what he may be overlooking, what he's currently not spending on? Sure, he could surround himself with hookers and coke, but cancer research is pretty damn important. His vast wealth forces him to accept an inherited responsibility toward the rest of us. Can you imagine being the world's richest person and never spending a dime on anyone else? What would we think of them? How would they be treated? We can look at training the same way. What good is knowing everything in martial arts - every technique and tactic - if we don't know when to use them? And more importantly, use them properly. Thousands of years of knowledge, strategy, technique, and tactics compel us with inherited responsibility toward their use. We would be negligent, just like Gates, if we spent that wealth solely on ourselves.

So, we must ask the single most important question in all of martial arts - when should we use them? The answer? When we need to. But how do we know we need to? We train. We train until we know when it's right to use them and when it's wrong. In my opinion, if we are not searching for an answer to "when," then why are we training?

Relativism states conceptions of truth and moral values are not absolute. It says our segregation from each other through our own cultural beliefs is perfectly normal. One person's truth or morals are different from another. People believe what they wish to believe. This is true. There are people who think we did not land on the moon. And even if you had them look through a powerful enough telescope so as to actually see the equipment left behind on its surface, would they change their mind? Maybe, but they have to want to. Conspiracies about 9/11 are even worse. If you can actually get past the gag reflex in listening to them, maybe you too can realize the "truth," that 1000s of Americans carried out, "the world's most intricate and flawlessly-executed plan ever ... ever (South Park, "Mystery of the Urinal Deuce)." And then covered it up.

Truth means: 1.Conformity to fact or actuality. 2. A statement proven to be or accepted as true. You see, we have to take further action and 'conform' and 'accept' truth. Facts are not truth. Facts represent actuality, but only support truth, provide evidence and can lead us to the truth. We still have to take a final step by accepting and conforming to truth in the end.

Are people's morals different from each other? Of course. Morals are based on values and one people's values are different from another. In America, we value freedom, liberty, democracy, and the pursuit of happiness, not to mention a Judeo-Christian ethic. Does the Taliban cherish those values as well? No, values are relative. In parts of the world, women are considered unequal and brutally subjugated by their men because that's their cultural value. Does it make it okay? Relativism says, we don't really know. And practicality is not a moral decider, it merely sidesteps the big questions. Besides, do we really want relativism or practicality to be the magnetic north of our moral compass?

Truth must not just be discovered, it must be rediscovered, again and again. And it must be reinforced or it will be intentionally forgotten, giving rise to thinking like moral/ethical relativism. And we should call ethical relativism exactly what it is: saying it's okay not to do the right thing. But clearly, if we're going to train martial arts, we need to know right from wrong. We may have to kill to protect ourselves or protect someone else. If we don't know where that line is and fail to act, or act too strongly so as to kill when we don't need to, it will haunt us the rest of our days. Our soldiers are taught how to fight, but they are not being inoculated to the spiritual damage that occurs in war - the damage we do to ourselves for having to kill the enemy. Defining ourselves as "killers" can make us sick, defining ourselves as "life-protectors" gives us clear distinctions to take action.

Why? Because warriors protect life. Whose life? All life. Even the bad guys? Yes. Unless we have to kill them. Sound oxymoronic? If their behavior forces us to kill them, like when they threaten ourselves, our loved ones, or by extension, others, 'protection of life' is the line we draw in the sand. It's how to know what is moral from what is immoral. Protecting life is moral. Killing to protect life is moral. Killing for relative, cultural values is immoral.

The protection of the lives of our loved ones, our group, even by extension 'others,' not to mention ourselves, is our inherited human responsibility. It's a genetic value encoded into our DNA over the last 10,000 years that forces us, compels us toward self and species survival by ensuring security for the tribe. No security, no survival. And it also tells us we will fight to save our own lives, and fight and die to save the lives of people who mean more to us than anyone else.

The thing about these distinctions is, we already know this. This is nothing new. It's like, we've always known this on some level. And that's because protection of life makes sense, it's "common sense." And if you were to ask a big group of people, you'd find it's widely accepted, almost universally. And when you compare it to every single one of our earthly values no matter what they may be - goodness, freedom, liberty, compassion - none of them would rank even a distant second to humanity's obligation to itself, humankind's universal value: life.

"Obviously, it does not mean that people are not different in almost all measurable ways. You may be bigger than I am, smarter than I, better built, stronger, faster in mind and body, better looking, possess a more popular skin color, etc. Nonetheless, in one way, in a way that eclipses all others in controlling importance, I AM YOUR EQUAL: MY LIFE AND THE LIVES OF MY LOVED ONES ARE AS IMPORTANT TO ME AS YOURS ARE TO YOU." ("Values for a New Millennium," Robert L. Humphrey, pg 51, no capitals added).

Robert Humphrey, mentor to Jack Hoban, fought in the Pacific during World War II on Iwo Jima, the bloodiest battle in the entire two hundred year history of the Marine Corp. In fact, "six of Humphrey's eight college schoolmates were killed within one hour of being brought to the front, and that was on day three of the thirty-six day, "inch-by-bloody-inch" fight. All but a handful of the 22,000 Japanese defenders died fighting or were killed by the frightened, angry, stressed out Marines who, like the Japanese, were taking no prisoners (LVI Website)." The island was a laboratory of death. But, when a Japanese soldier tried to surrender and was about to be killed by another Marine, Humphrey, a Lieutenant, ordered the man to stand down, he wouldn't. These two Marines were about to kill each other because Humphrey wished to save the Japanese soldier's life. Humphrey eventually backed the other Marine down and the Japanese soldier was captured, yielding some small intelligence, a map. But it was this moment that Humphrey recalled some 50 years later as his, "proudest moment." There was so much killing it was the act of not killing which Humphrey accounts for saving his life and not having debilitating PTSD.

On August 14th, a day after Charles Augusto Jr., 72, shot four robbers with a shotgun, killing two of them, after they stormed his New York business and beat an employee, his words to reporters was, "I wish I didn't need to."

"When they walked in at about 3 p.m. and confronted Augusto with guns, "I didn't want to shoot them," he said, sitting bleary-eyed in his dusty, windowless warehouse, with a fly swatter hanging above his head. He said the bandits drew their handguns, yelling, "Where's the money? Where's the money?" They pistol-whipped a worker and waved a weapon at a cashier's face, he said. "There is no money," Augusto said he told them. "Go home." Stashed away nearby was the 12-gauge shotgun he bought decades ago and said he had never used since a test-fire. He reached for it when he sensed one of the men was about to shoot, and pulled the trigger once. "I hoped after the first shot they would go away," he said. When they didn't, continuing to menace his employees, he fired again, and again. "I'd rather not have done it," Augusto said, "and I'm sad for those mothers who have no sons." (Associated Press)
Listen to his incredibly compelling interview here:

In the months before mass murderer George Sodini marched into his local gym carrying four guns and opened fire on a Pittsburg aerobics class this past August 4th, he blogged about, "chickening out" on January 6th and on a second attempt in May. But, of course, before taking his own life, Sodini still didn't get it. You see, "chickening out," is the act of opening fire with two handguns on a bunch of women, some pregnant, at your local gym. What prevented him from carrying out his horrific intention on the previous occasions was, in fact, the last remnants of his shared humanity (responsibility) pulling him back from the brink.

Who will fight? All of us. Even bad guys? Yes. Saying someone else doesn't feel this compulsion, this self-and-others value, is like saying they aren't human, like they are somehow outside the human family; sub-human. Even the murderous Taliban and Al-Qaeda are fighting to save their own skins and the skins of their fellow terrorists. But in their case, their balanced-life value is unbalanced, specifically toward the species-preserving 'others' side, when they proclaim their own relative, cultural values are somehow more important than the 'right to life' our shared universal value grants each of us. How can their earthly values in any way supersede the lives of people we love?

So, when we hear reports about bomb vests being strapped to children, or retarded people, how they are waded into crowds of innocents in foreign markets and remotely detonated from safe distances, we don't even have to think about it, we just know the right and wrong of it. We know because they have violated our universal value and placed their own beliefs, traditions, and culture above the lives of everyone else. They disrespect us. They disrespect our loved ones and ourselves by not treating us as equals. Instead, they treat us as if we are somehow outside the human family. As if we are sub-human.

The balanced-life value cannot prove morality, it can only support it, provide evidence of it. Training is the very search for moral values, but training alone will not make us moral, any more than simply going to church makes us good. Ethics are morals in action. But ethics don't count if we keep them to ourselves. Without ethics, martial arts are just a bunch of yelling, jumping, and swinging shit around, a selfish endeavor, if not for the responsibility they endow.

Throughout history, warriors have been charged with the delivery and security of ‘better’ and ‘safer.’ But how are we to make the world better and safer, if we are ignorant or relativistic of what that actually is? To do so, we have to know the difference. Warriorship is a method of knowing this difference. But it isn't something that happens just because we train, we have to choose to do it. Because doing is what counts.


A full explanation of the "balanced-life value" deserves better than anything I could possibly write in a blog post, so at the very least, get your hands on a copy and read, "Values for a New Millennium." And if you've already read it, read it again and rediscover it.

Also, re-read Takamatsu and Hatsumi sensei's "Essence of Ninjutsu," and see if a realization of this moral/ethical responsibility doesn't decipher the text and add to the depth of their passages.

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