Beautiful violence?

Friend Thomas raised an interesting point. Martial arts, in essence, teach one how to best utilize the body to hurt someone else. There’s no getting away from that, and it raises a difficult question. If violence is inherent in martial arts, then isn’t it just as bad as war? How can something painful ever be used for something good?

This is a delicious question for my constantly churning mind, one which I am grateful for because it gives it something to chew on besides me. The question got me thinking, and this is what I’ve managed to work out thus far.

Martial arts is a tool, amongst other things. Like a hammer it can be used to build a house, or bludgeon someone to death. It has more to do with the wielder than the actual tool, so of course it can lend itself to bad things. But a violent person will misuse a chair or science or a car: we do not stop making and creating because of the potential for misuse. If that were the case, all progress would cease and we’d be sitting alone in the dark.

I have hundreds of reasons for training like I do, but one of them is because I see it as an art, a profoundly beautiful one when understood and displayed with a strong, responsive body. Inside the dojo there are systems that appear hierarchical on the outside but aren’t much different from family structures. There is the Sensei, who orders the Sempai, who orders the Kouhai. Each group has its own role to play in running the microcosm of the dojo, and those lessons should be applied to the world and life outside. The kouhai inspire the Sensei and keep the sempai in line. The sempai learn from both parties as they also help run the dojo and learn lessons in planning and self-respect. We learn things like hygiene, personal and area neatness, attentive listening, respect for others. Respecting the body’s limits and potential, being polite and being dedicated. These are principles that I feel are beautiful and necessary in an increasingly rude and isolated world. Kata, the living textbook, is the manifestation of discipline, strength and understanding, is no different from any piece from a ballet or a gymnastics show. And even when the bunkai of each technique is revealed, it should not be with malice or evil grins. By understanding the devastating power of the body, we best understand its weakness and that some people might one day need someone to protect them. We might need to protect ourselves.

One of the reasons I can’t stand tournament is because it turns martial arts into something showy and violent. It becomes about beating someone for a trifling medal, and not about one’s own strength and potential. The rules are poorly reflective and arbitrary and have nothing to do with what the martial arts are about. It becomes cheap and ineffective. Goju Ryu is about ending the fight in one punch. This is pragmatic and better than cutting someone to ribbons with a sword. Aikido is about harmonizing and immobilizing, not beating the shit out of someone. That’s why there are no Aikido strikes. Just throws and locks. This is not boxing or war. This is about self-defense, or at least should be. I know there are dojo with bad attitudes, but that comes from bad teachers. Just as there are sports with kids getting worked into near exhaustion just for first place, just as there are churches that hate everyone, there are bad dojo who misuse the art. It is not a reflection of the actual art. Anything can be misused.

I feel that a great Sensei inspires a dignified and kind approach to life. A great Sensei inspires discipline and pride and integrity. A real Sensei does not allow hazing of juniors, and does not allow bad behaviour in their dojo. Sensei have to make tough decisions and be able to back them up. Sometimes they have to fail people even if they know the student will be devastated. I’m sure it wasn’t nice for Denzil-sensei or Mary-sensei to fail me, but they did it because I did not meet the standard they set through my shortcomings, through my lack of training. They know me well enough to know how intense I am and how hard I would take it, and no good teacher wants to see their student deflated. But they did it, and it was the right decision. They have to think about the art and its standard and what I need to consider in my journey.

This is what martial arts can and should be about. Not showmanship, not beating the shit out of anyone. It should be about self-discipline and strength and honour and integrity. Being able to take orders from someone younger because they are higher graded requires humility. (All of my Sempai at Goju are much younger than me, but I know how hard they worked for their black belts and I respect their authority. They have earned it.) Being able to train regardless of the weather or energy or time requires discipline. All in all, martial arts should engender a better approach to life. I feel like I am constantly being forged, both by my will and the concerted effort of others. I like to think that each year I grow up a bit more, that I learn to accept criticism like an adult and not like a cat on a hot tin roof.

“The purpose of training is to tighten up the slack, toughen the body and polish the spirit,” said Morehei Ueshiba. It is a great way of putting things. My body should be more than a receptacle for chips and sweets. My mind should be put to increasingly difficult goals and commitments. With everything else being easy for me, there should be something that is hard and sometimes unforgiving. Without it, I am coasting on my admittedly decent mind and never feel the reward and pain of challenge.

So yes, there’s violence. But there’s also beauty and discipline and friendship and knowledge and reward. That’s what it means to me, and over time it will come to mean more and more.

PS: My grammar has not taken a turn for the Anglo-Saxon: the Japanese language does not use plurals. Hence one dojo, two dojo.

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