The Bright Line

There are a number of preconceptions that many of us have when we first foray into the world of martial arts:

“This training will make me invincible!”
“I am very athletic; I should pick this up easily.”
“I am very intelligent; I should pick this up easily.”
“Any art other than the one I am studying is junk!”

There are more, of course, but you get the idea. If we are lucky, these preconceptions are dispelled quietly, gently, and quickly. If we are unlucky, we are forced to deal with these notions harshly, abruptly, and after they have had time to linger for far too long in our psyche.

I bring this up because, recently, I have had to reckon with a preconception I’ve held for quite some time. Fortunately, this is a notion that I already knew was false; still, I had yet to fully acknowledge it as an untruth. The preconception? Very simple:

“A martial artist, due to the nature of his training, adheres to a high moral and ethical code.”

Those more seasoned than I are likely laughing at this point. After all, nowhere was it ever written that a martial artist held to a higher sense of moral authority. The notion is a romantic one at best, one that stems from a misguided understanding of the codes of honor to which the ideal warrior was supposed to exemplify. We neglect to understand that code of honor does not require one to be of strong moral character; a code of honor simply is an agreed upon set of protocols to ensure that, when two warriors fought it out, they could justify their actions by pointing to the other and indignantly crying out: “He offended my honor! I must have satisfaction.” (In truth, I bet most duels were fought because at least one of the combatants wanted to beat up the other, and wanted to be sure he faced no legal consequences as a result.) To put it simply: you can have a code of honor, and still be an amoral jerk.

There was no event or experience that made me finally face this preconception. Instead, it was more like a series of small revelations that I eventually noticed. The experience is much like how one could drive from work to home, always taking the same route, and suddenly realize a store along the way that had always been there, but you hadn’t paid much attention to. (Ask my wife–I do this all the time!) When I first started thinking about it, I was a little dismayed. It seems wrong to me, somehow, that an experienced martial artist should allow themselves to behave in an unethical or base manner. How does martial arts training differ from brawling, if not for ethics?

As I’ve thought more, I have come to what, for me, works as the truth. Yes, there is nothing inherent in martial arts training that forces you to be ethical. I, for example, have often been considered a nice guy, a morally reliable guy. But this facet of my personality stems from sources other than my martial arts training. My training did not make me a better person, per se. Instead, it has given me the ability to stand behind my convictions. To draw a bright line between what I find acceptable, and what I find unpalatable.

I remember a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago. The subject was something political, and the people with whom I was talking were wrestling with the fact that the issue was not black and white, but deeply mired in shades of gray. As I listened, however, I found that it was relatively easy to listen to my own moral and ethical code. Because of my training, I could clearly make a decision that made sense to me, and do so knowing that my perspective did not resolve things perfectly, yet also knowing that I could face the consequences of my point-of-view with confidence.

It is my opinion, now, that as martial artists we must cultivate this ability to draw a line between what we find acceptable and what we do not–WITHOUT attempting to instill a point of view on anyone. (It is for this reason I discourage certain topics from being discussed at the dojo.) We must be willing and able to stand up and protect our mental well-being just as we would protect our physical well-being. And as martial arts instructors, we should strive to help our students stand up for themselves–to figure out where they stand and be unafraid, even if that means you disagree with them.

After all, how many of us really train for some sense of physical security, and how many of us train for mental and emotional security?

6 thoughts on “The Bright Line

  1. You’ve brought up an interesting topic. I need to think on this further myself. Some immediate thoughts that came to my head:

    “how many of us really train for some sense of physical security, and how many of us train for mental and emotional security?”

    I suppose technically, since aikido tends to emphasize the coordination of body and mind, we should be training for both. But I think what you’re asking is whether we train strictly to defend ourselves, or whether to gain self-confidence. In reality, I think most of us who train in aikido seek to better ourselves, and in doing so, we seek to have a stronger sense of self.

    “How does martial arts training differ from brawling, if not for ethics?”

    I don’t think it’s ethics more than it’s about a mutual understanding of rules, which are not the same thing. I have to reference your previous post on parameters/rules: The difference between rules and ethics are that rules are what has been agreed upon within a group, and ethics attaches some judgment as to right and wrong. I think this is the point you’re trying to make in any case.

    Finally, “A martial artist, due to the nature of his training, adheres to a high moral and ethical code.”

    It is a romantic notion, and I wish it were true. Certainly, aikido follows the Japanese tradition of bushido. Does it apply to modern-day training? It’s debatable, I suppose. There are certainly all types of people who train in aikido, and everyone comes away with something different in their training. I would daresay that training in aikido doesn’t inherently change who you are. Training in aikido will not make you superior to everyone, nor will it give you license to act like a jerk.

    I would be interested in hearing what others have to say about this.

  2. It’s very interesting to read your take on this. Maybe the universe is speaking to both of us at the same time.

    I just finished reading an article in “Fighting Arts” on “giri,’ by Harry Cook.

    He states that “I know of a number of martial arts teachers who expect their followers to show a giri-like devotion but simply exploit them for financial gain. Duty does not mean a dog-like acceptance of anything a teacher happens to throw your way, and anyone who simply treats you as an inexhaustible source of funds does not deserve respect; he is simply a merchant selling his product, nothing more.

    Often martial arts teachers are physically powerful and charismatic individuals and it is natural for their students to project all kinds of wish-fulfilling notions on them confusing an adolescent hero-worship with giri. For example, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh is infamous for the control he had over his followers. Krishnamurti comments on Bhagwan for the control over his followers saying this: One must never give to another human being your ultimate manifestation of consciousness, which is your ability to make decisions for yourself. Understand this: no man has power except the power his followers give him. That is why he needs people around him all the time and the more the better.

    Finding the correct balance between giri (obligations) and ningo (human feelings) is very difficult.”

    It has been my experience that a code of honor among martial arts teachers goes about the same way as the rest of humanity. It depends on the individual and what one demands of his leaders.

  3. One supposed purpose of Aikido is to “polish the spirit”. I love the phrase and idea but am not entirely certain that I have followed the path far enough for more than some simple aspects of that to have seeped into my being.

    As Aikidoka, we repeat, time and again, techniques to condition certain patterns of response to violence. Our responses, though potentially lethal are not necessarily so, thus, on a basic level the art itself has a built in morality that might be lacking in other kill-with-one-strike type arts.

    On another level, martial artists in general must exert greater control over themselves lest their training turn them into truly destructive brutes. Even if such behavior were acceptable in our society, we can not thrash every jerk who might otherwise give offense. So, even the kill-or-be-killed types must also cultivate their spirit as their strength grows otherwise they put their own freedom and lives in jeopardy.

    I do think that there is some reason to expect a certain difference in the level of moral character from an experienced martial artist than with a common brawler. The huge caveat that I have to add is that this moral growth has to do with conflict (physical conflict anyway) so martial artists are as likely to suffer from moral issues related to money, power and sex as anyone else.

    Take care,

  4. I once asked my instructor why we don’t emphasize the philosophy and ethics of Aikido (or what I thought Aikido should be) more in class. He said “In Aikido we don’t train to be unbeatable. We train to decrease the likelihood we’ll be hurt. It’s a greater percentage of our safety. The longer you train in Aikido the more patience you need. Most people who are agressive or angry don’t last. A small percentage do, but it gets drastically lower after Shodan. So we don’t need to TEACH patience and gentleness of character because that will work itself out naturally. Be aware though, that although a small percentage of people who are impatient and angry are still there.” I don’t know if that helps or applies, but your post made me think of that.

  5. Interesting post. I’m a beginner, so my thoughts about this will surely evolve. But I tend to think about aikido as a lens for dividing things up into What Works and What Doesn’t Work, and find that the existential/ethical/metaphysical lessons it offers me are basically lessons of efficacy. Usually, correct, healthy, ethical behavior works. But not always.

    To take one example, I am very clever and very verbal. And I work hard to **not talk** every single class because whenever I open my mouth I make a disparaging wisecrack about my lack of skills, or how awkward I feel. This effort on the mat to be more quiet makes it easier to see that my wit, something that I have always seen as a very positive trait, often backfires, and that learning how to be a little less quick with a quip will serve just about every area of my life well.

    That’s a relatively easy lesson because it’s so obvious that acting like Phyllis Diller on the mat is ineffective. Similarly, as a small woman, I only had to work with someone much larger than me a few times to understand that force doesn’t work. But I wouldn’t have figured that out yet if I could legitimately push other people around. An aikido dojo is hardly a perfect Spirit Polishing System. A few yudansha that I train with often, because they have a real reputation for being “patient with new students,” have a surprising blind spot in common. Instead of watching the actual technique being demonstrated, they insist on doing a similar technique that they like or know well, and will expend a lot of effort telling me, the beginner, that I wasn’t watching the demonstration. Sensei will correct and correct, and even say the words, “she’s doing it right!” and it doesn’t matter because they are sitting in such a comfortable groove. They work with people who know little, so that they can glide through class in a confident state of mind, and get high marks for patience at the same time! It’s not what’s best for them, but it certainly is effective!

    I am sure everyone has an aspect of their being that needs polish, but that also serves, in the short term anyway, on the mat. One of my own goals in going back to aikido is to figure out how to be less intense and macho, but I get so much positive reinforcement for being a tough girl that I don’t think this is going to happen any time soon unless I either stupidly injure myself or work much harder to find a good mentor.

    Thanks for the opportunity to think about this.

  6. “A martial artist, due to the nature of his training, adheres to a high moral and ethical code.”

    I did a psychology study on Karate and Agression as coursework at college, and one of the background studies I think is relevant to this particular statement:

    It followed delinquents that joined martial arts clubs to let out aggression and become less…delinquentish. The study found that in competition based clubs with a focus on winning INCREASED delinquency, whereas traditional clubs lowered delinquency. The conclusion was that in latter clubs the students were given a positive role model (their sensei) and less competitive training, and so “adhered to a higher moral and ethical code.” So I believe that the teacher is perhaps what most affects the morality of the students produced…

    Just my two pence, great post by the way 🙂

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