April 16, 2015

The Martial and the Moral

From the Introduction to my new book, "The Protector Ethic."

Normality with Distinction

Imagine training the compression and assisted-breathing techniques of CPR merely as a set of compartmentalized physical skills, but divorced from their design to be used to save lives. Without attunement for CPR’s usage, why exactly has one learned it? What is the point of learning to do something, if one is incapable of recognizing when such learning may be applied? It’s like having solution to a problem one doesn’t even know exists - when encountered, we remain ignorant to any contribution to resolve it.

Martial training requires this reflection, just like in learning any ability that has the potential to do oneself or others great good or great harm. Spiderman’s Uncle Ben was right, “With great power, comes great responsibility,” and I would argue it is the acceptance of this responsibility and its leadership that one should ultimately recognize and consent to in any martial journey.

The English writer GK Chesterton was a well-known art critic. Great art, he said, is paradoxical:
The thing that survives is that which has a certain combination of normality with distinction. It has simplicity with a slight touch of strangeness … It is a tale just sufficiently unusual to be worth telling, and yet immediately intelligible when told.  
Such is martial art. They are imminently reasonable in their mandate, intrinsic to humanity's instinctual nature, altogether inspiring and terrible, and yet steeped in an inscrutable mystery of mind-body potential.

More so than many recognize, they are precious to humankind and the reason is simple: martial arts are moral. And when we use them, train them, speak upon them, we deal with the ethical - moral values in action.

Common Discovery

Martial arts are moral for a simple reason: they were not invented, like the latest Apple product, they were discovered, at different times, in different places, by different people, in different ways around the world because of our shared common sense and the universal values that are essential and worthwhile to humans: the protection, defense, and sustainment of life.

Does anyone believe the discovery of fire and its control was inconsequential to human existence? On the contrary, humankind as we know it would simply not exist, would not have survived, if not for the ability to control fire. In this sense, it wasn’t just good information to know, it was crucial. The control of fire was also discovered at different times, in different places, by different people, in different ways around the world because of our common sense: the protection, defense, and sustainment of life.

Being able to conjure and control fire was considered sacred. But why? Because humans like to stay warm, eat cooked food, and have their journey lit? In other words, because it improved their quality of life? Certainly. But these specifics ultimately allowed fire to protect, defend, and sustain humanity’s existence itself. It is this that made it sacred and makes the tradition of “firemaking” sacred still today. Just ask any outdoorsman, camper, hunter, tracker, military or outdoor rescue personnel - fire is life. No fire, no life.

For a large measure of their refined existence, the martial arts and their ways were also considered sacred. Was this because they simply improved quality of life? Ultimately, humankind as we know it could not have survived, if not for the ability to develop and refine the martial arts. There is no moment in history that does not involve their usage, in fact, they permeate it. Imbued with the instinct of self and others preservation from the American Plains Indians to the samurai warrior, martial techniques are as varied as the DNA of the people that developed them. Just as the thousands of variations to create fire under the conditions, environments, and cultures it needs to be created.

Is this want and need to protect somehow amoral, as in, “lying outside the sphere to which moral judgments apply?” as in, “without moral principles?” Not at all. For without the protection of life, there could never have been any tribe, community, town, or society.

Can the martial arts be misused? Assuredly, and they have been, just as the control of fire has. But arguing martial arts are divorced from the moral and ethical is to misinterpret the motive of their origins and the principles of their study. This degradation calls into question their sacredness, their very dignity, the “why” they exist, for it is the same as calling into question the “why it matters” for them to exist in the first place - the sacredness, dignity, morality of the protection of the value of life itself.

The Martial is Ethical

The destructive and unworthy use of the martial way is a renunciation of their gift as a life-protecting source, confirmation of our own prideful use, and a reproach to the gratitude and humility we take for granted for receiving and using their traditions. In fact, it is their misuse and disorientation that continually helps us to re-orient ourselves, reminding us of their calibrating and original right-ness. The evidence for this is the ethical implications of martial training itself. For anytime someone decides to begin training the decision is an embodiment, a physical articulation of “why” one wishes to train, akin to answering “why it matters” to train in the first place. Upon this, there are three questions inherent to training that anyone who trains must answer:
What am I going to learn?
How am I going to learn it?
Who am I going to learn from?
These ethical considerations only gain in importance. For once one becomes an instructor they do not just inhabit our teaching lives, they haunt them:
What am I going to teach? 
How am I going to teach it? 
Who am I going to teach to?
These are the interrogatives of martial principles and are answered regardless of our awareness or ignorance to them, for it is our very participation - the doing of martial arts and their training - that is our vote for the “what, how, and who.” Thus, no one can involve the martial way without being questioned first by the ethical.

Further, these questions call for direction not just for informative martial techniques, but our manners in thinking and action for using them. Manners relate to the qualities of the person and qualities relate to character. “Manners are of more importance than laws,” Edmund Burke wrote. “Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.” It seems no one trains martial arts without subjecting themselves to the possibilities of moral character calibration.

Just like morals, martial arts do not change us for the better, only grant us opportunity to change ourselves, provided we moor training habits to their ethical design. Unless students are compelled to reflect on their inherent moral responsibility, then the training’s potency is diluted from beneficial - virtuous - calibration to mere selfish endeavor. And when training gets selfish, it can grow dark and become twisted, where everyone is a potential enemy, everyone is suspect. Instead of becoming a happier, healthier, more attractive person – a brighter light to the world – we dim, obscured by shadows of our own making.

This is the biggest concern I have with most training - reliance on techniques is symptomatic of the excessive focus upon the self and the continual satisfaction of the needs of the ego. Perhaps you’ve heard martial arts destroys the ego, but this is silly, people need a healthy ego to thrive in this world. Training is meant to temper the ego, doing so by balancing our desires with humility from our responsibilities for others. Let’s face it, without the obligation to intervene as a protector for self and for others, even if only to call “911” to report someone in need of help, any training we might have cancels itself out.

Killing Arts?

It’s only through the rose-colored lens of modernity can society by its bounty and ample security could mock and take for granted these once sacred arts, reducing firemaking to a quaint little skill ideal for campers, and the martial arts to the savagery of “ultimate fighting.” Our own self-satisfaction issues the license to degrade martial arts here as amoral - neither ethical or unethical - but simply the cold, hard, inert tool to make easy the utility to win, to harm, to kill. But just what is so exemplary about killing? The fate of the feudal and ancient world was indiscriminate death. People died young, sick, and infirm as they were plagued by plagues, starved, hunted, and massacred between tribes and clans. History’s brutality is legendary. However it is the trained martial ways that could tip that balance, for they could protect and sustain life for those who would otherwise have surely perished in conflict. Is there any question as to why the warrior class would ascend to the preeminent cultural position in every valid society? It is because the warrior was not renowned for their death-dealing, but their life-giving. Death was commonplace. Life was special.

There are some that wish to deny this intrinsic ethical relationship and would rather rely upon whatever one deems prescriptive for its usage. It is here the pedigree of the martial way is misinterpreted to be mere “killing arts,” which, in effect, unceremoniously diminishes and degrades them by severing the link between martial strategies and their original life-giving principles. The account departs from any sense of responsibility for shared duties to fellow persons and appeals, perhaps unwittingly, to our base appetite for “might makes right,” leaving both practitioner and opponent dehumanized.

If the guiding value of martial arts were only the “killing of the enemy,” then how does one explain the fact these arts contain, were refined, and were meant to be understood and trained protectively? The arts themselves retain the tactical calculations in order to live, even though killing the enemy may be necessary. Were the guiding value to cultivate only a “killing art” they would have been refined far differently, for it is always easier to kill the enemy and train to kill them when one’s own life and the lives of others are forfeit and sacrificial to that goal. “Suicide bombing” is first and foremost a “killing art,” if art at all, for its guiding values and principles place killing the enemy above the lives of any innocents affected or taken, and even the life of the bomber. Thus, the martial arts must cohere with human nature’s life-preserving instincts - even a killing art of survival is qualified by the value-of-life notion, survival.

We ourselves by our own assent to depict and participate with a so-called “killing art” will have revoked and falsified the actual moral reasons for necessity and worth of the martial way. Even if we believe in the moral reasons, if we don’t train them, articulate them, and rely upon them, we will have left it to the misinformed uninitiated to use them against us in a court of public opinion, or perhaps an actual court, and even shape any future arguments for the abolition of martial arts altogether.

Knowing the Ought

Ethics relate to action, but no action can be had if we lack, not simply the will, but an understanding of what makes ethics relevant in the first place. Martial techniques are often thought of as the lifeblood of training, but if we lose the sense of what makes them matter to begin with, then why are we training at all?

In Gichin Funakoshi’s seminal work, “The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate,” the founder of modern Karate tells a story regarding Tsukahara Bokuden, a famous feudal-age, Japanese swordmaster. As the story goes, a high level student of his with “extraordinary technical skill” passed by a skittish horse that kicked at him. He “deftly turned his body to avoid the kick and escaped injury.” Bystanders were so impressed they related the story to Bokuden himself, who reportedly said, “I’ve misjudged him,” and promptly expelled the student.

Unable to understand his reasoning the folks set to force Bokuden to react to the same circumstances by placing “an exceedingly ill-tempered horse” on a road they knew he used. Secretly watching, they were surprised to see Bokuden give the horse a wide berth and pass it without incident. Confessing their ruse, the swordmaster said:
A person with a mental attitude that allows him to walk carelessly by a horse without considering that it may rear up is a lost cause no matter how much he may study technique. I thought he was a person of better judgment, but I was mistaken.
Funakoshi uses this story as a way to explain “mentality over technique,” but never defines what he means by “mentality” or why it should be “over technique.” I suppose he could mean anything – a certain wherewithal for applying one’s ability or perhaps one’s manner, character, for doing so. What is clear to me from the story is that losing one’s sense of “mentality,” or worse, being willfully ignorant of it, can be life-threatening.

I submit that “mentality” here actually represents one’s common sense. Bokuden dismissed his student for a simple reason: he was careless with his life. He had lost touch with his own common sense.

From survivalists, like Tom Brown and Larry Dean Olsen, to Jon “Lofty” Wiseman of British SAS fame, shelter is the priority for survival situations in harsh climates. In essence, this is to position or re-position oneself to endure the situation.

In terms of training, conflict and violence represent “harsh climate,” thus, positioning is the priority. Sort of. There is something even more important than positioning: knowing you ought to position. "Knowing the ought" means you are not in denial of a situation that can kill you. It means you are “mindful” about what’s at stake and can thus make the decision to act. Any technique of sheltering or martial arts is useless if we are oblivious to, deny, or willfully ignore when it should be used, when it ought to be used. In fact, once we have a clear understanding of ought, we also gain a clear context to apply any technique. This is true of training at all levels and all methods. Reactivating the common sense is how we teach ourselves what we are supposed to do and how we are supposed to do it because we are trying to protect and defend a very clear comprehension of why - why we ought - to be doing it in the first place.

Reconnection to the common sense provides the context that allows us to intuit the shape of movement and its proportionality. Expanding the palette of training’s options, like different contexts, is to challenge the very perceptions of what we believe martial training is capable of. Expansive training places the burden of use upon us as we try to recognize the requirements that habituate us toward viability, or life-sustaining action.

These requirements are all meant to calibrate us to that which makes training matter to begin with - the "why" and "why it matters" - our common sense, Natural Law inclinations of survival and self-worth: the Protector Ethic.

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