The Role of Compassion in the Martial Arts

People don’t often equate the idea of compassion with something as seemingly destructive as martial arts, but I believe it plays a significant role. We are, after all, dealing with the damage and death of other human beings.

Right away I’d like to reverse the idea of compassion from what people normally consider. Usually compassion is seen as a lofty ideal not suitable for real-life self defense. There is no time, as it is argued, to be toying around with someone who wishes you bodily harm.

There is a rather well known martial artist who goes by the name of Shaka Zulu. History buffs will immediately recognize that name from the African leader of antiquity, and indeed the modern Shaka received his “name” from the Zulu tribe. He says this about real life combat:

“He who cannot defend himself owns nothing, not good fortune or even his own life. If you start out from a weak point in an attack, and a weak point means to me: somebody attacks me with a knife, and I say ‘I’m just gonna control them or disarm them’…no man. That’s not my attitude, my attitude is ‘I’m gonna kill you’. And if I see that you can’t handle what I got, I will deescalate. But there is no way I am going to rev myself up from that low point of control to I’m gonna kill you. It’s not gonna happen that way and it’s going to take too long to get there. So I start from the top first – I’m gonna kill you, and if I don’t have to, I won’t.”

Compassion in a confrontation does not mean the initiation of half-hearted, ineffective techniques. It means having the mastery over yourself to preserve the life of your attacker if possible, and controlling yourself to do no more damage than is necessary.

All or Nothing, Revenge, and Lessons Learned

The common mindset among brute martial artists is that a confrontation is all or nothing. If an assailant afronts a martial artist, no matter what the circumstance or level of violence, the martial artist is then entitled to dismember the aggressor and teach him a lesson for his misconduct. By not striking first, the martial artist has thus followed the letter of “karate ni senti nashi” (there is no first strike in karate) and is therefore in the right.

There are other basic motivations that are often cited as ‘justifications’ for extreme violence. One is pride, thinly disguised as the foggy concept of Honor. For example, if a “creep” starts to tug and harass an individual’s girlfriend, that person has the right to defend the girlfriend’s honor by breaking all of the harasser’s bones. Another example is revenge for some transgression perpetrated in the near or distant past.

Unfortunately all of these mindsets drastically miss the true purpose of martial arts training. That purpose is not self defense, or even defense of others, but of life protection.

Life Protection

When properly trained, and at the peak of their capabilities, martial artists have heavy burdens to bear. They must possess the ability to inflict immediate destruction upon opponents should the situation mandate it, but also be capable of all gradations of violence below that level. They must feel that they are accountable for the protection of their own life, the lives around them, and the lives of the attackers. Therefore, if at any point possible, it is up to them to show compassion and preserve the life of wayward aggressors.

The reason why traditional martial arts are so complex (some say overly complex), is because the old masters desired to have the ability to knockout or control opponents with immediate swiftness that didn’t necessarily force a death dealing blow.

You may be thinking, “Yes that’s nice but in this day-and-age you never know when a situation will appear mild and escalate into a gun or knife attack”. That’s very true, and also why it is critical to practice the mindset Chaka Zulu expresses above, and to hone technique to the point of expertise. An unskilled fighter may have to bludgeon and kill an attacker, when a master could knock him unconscious. The result of the situation is exactly the same for the defender either way, but drastically different for the attacker. The brute fighter may call it ‘just desserts’ for the attacker, but the martial artist seeking life protection would realize he took a life when it wasn’t necessary. If the situation were a military combat confrontation on the field of battle, the decision process might be more black and white. But civilian martial arts are not the same as military engagement.

Allow me to illustrate the point with a story from “Karate-Do: My Way of Life“, by Funakoshi Gichin of (what is now) Shotokan Karate:

“One day I went to a poetry-reading party in Tamagawa. Japan, then, was still in a state of postwar chaos, and people were warned that it was dangerous to walk along at night. But I decided no one would molest an old man like me, so [after the party] I got off the train at Otsuka Station and started for home…The incident I am about to relate occurred somewhere between Otsuka and Hikawashita; it began when a black-clad figure sprang suddenly out from behind a telephone pole.

“Hey Granddad!” he cried, making a lunge for my umbrella…I realized that he was a thief but I could also tell, from the tone of his voice, that he was a very amateur one, a newcomer to the trade, so to speak, trying to pretend that he was tough…

The man snatched my umbrella from my hand, and it looked to me as though he was about to try to hit me with it. His stance was full of openings, when he swung the umbrella at me, I ducked under and, with my right hand, took a firm grasp of his testicles. The pain was, I have no doubt, very near unbearable. The umbrella fell to the ground, and the man himself, after a sudden sharp cry, looked as though he might well pass out.

Fortunately, a patrolling police officer appeared on the scene, and I released my assailant into his custody. As I continued on my way, I realized that the would-be robber was almost certainly a veteran recently returned from some distant front. Jobless, he had decided to rob me on the spur of the moment, and I, also on the spur of the moment, had done what I constantly tell my young trainees never to do: I had taken the offensive. I did not feel very proud of myself.”

Even as an older gentleman, Funakoshi Sensei was so skilled that he dealt with his assailant quickly and effectively. Be assured that if Funakoshi had decided to, he could have maimed the young man, and who would have blamed him? He was being attacked by a youthful tough who also had a weapon. Funakoshi realized in an instant that a high level of aggression was not necessary to neutralize the situation effectively. Indeed he was such a harsh critic of violence against others that this completely viable execution of self defense upset him!

I have no doubt that Funakoshi, looking back, would have advised himself to be more aware. To make wiser decisions about where to walk and what to avoid. In fact, awareness, presentness, and conflict resolution skills are all held with the utmost regard in most traditional martial arts. The most compassionate way to deal with a violent situation is to prevent it from starting (sen sen no sen is not just a physical concept), even at the sacrifice of ego and pride.

“The Hands is Connected to One’s Heart”

Seiyu Oyata Sensei is the headmaster of Ryu Te, a traditional style of karate that features highly advanced kyusho techniques. Oyata Sensei is painfully capable of inflicting lethal damage, and quick. However, despite his talent for violence, he had this to say about his own art:

“Goshin Jitsu. Your Life, my life, I protect. Life Protection.” Oyata Sensei has a way of saying a lot with a little. Life protection is a pervading mindset in Sensei who still strive for the true meaning of “do”, the way.

The Real World and Compassion

Compassion has no negative effects on real-world self defense. It does not slow down or hinder technique. The mindset of happo zanshin, of utter dominance is still present. You can do what needs to be done, even if that means enacting the ultimate penalty on attackers. However compassion is not only wise from a philisophical standpoint, but a legal one as well.

If Funakoshi Sensei had killed his young assailant, it’s difficult to say what fate would have awaited him. He might have gotten off free, but maybe not. In today’s litigious society, you can bet he would have had serious repercussions to deal with. Those repercussions are something we modern practitioners of life protection need to keep in mind.

When a conflict first erupts, the law cannot be swimming through your mind as it will slow you down and make you hesitant. Instinctual technique must kick in through years of hard training. However, if you can, you must assess the intent of the opponent, the likelihood of other attackers, and the amount of force needed to put yourself in a position of safety. Consider seriously the options of running away, of disengaging and using verbal negotiation, or of striking/grappling/bending your opponent into compliance. No matter what circumstance you are presented with, your mindset is initially the same – deadly serious. But by securing the situation as quickly as possible, you get to decide how things end. And, if you have the stomach for it, you can be compassionate.

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Life protection is heavy. I don’t blame anyone for simplifying self defense into: “if someone attacks me, I’ll pummel them until they can’t move or breath…because you never know”. But one thing I do know is that the old masters did not think this way, and I personally have decided to seek what they sought.