This is a post I've been working on for some time - in my head at least - and I'm still struggling a little with how to frame it. That said, I've gotten to a place where I'm thinking that if I just start writing, maybe what I'm missing will flush itself out.
Now, the subject of this post can be a bit sensitive for martial artists because it's sometimes difficult to separate the "why" from the "way" in which we conduct our art. You'll see what I mean in a minute. In the meantime, keep in mind that I'm not interested in insulting anyone as much as I am in exploring how compassion fits in with such a violent hobby and how martial artists tend to miss compassion as the "way" of our [life]style. But enough of that - let's get to it.
I've finished reading When Buddhists Attack, a fantastic exploration of zen's integration with the martial arts. I read the book because I was looking to reverse engineer how it was that I stumbled upon a zen-like state of mind when practicing kata or in the chaos of sparring. It caught me completely off guard and I liked the peace, the perspective and what it did for my skill on the mats. As someone with a kinesthetic learning style I've known for years that body movement unlocks deeper levels of concentration for me, but this was new and it wasn't long before it found integration with nearly every area of my life. When Buddhists Attack offered up some new perspectives and I'm thankful for it.
But the book did more than just shed light on my journey, it reinforced how deeply rooted the character trait of compassion is in the fighting arts. It wasn't reading about Buddhism that got me as much as it was what I found written between the lines of the stories shared by the author: that for those who do it right, the longer they study martial arts the more compassionate they become. This example from the book tells the tale of an old karate master named Yasutsune "Ankoh" Itosu - the father of modern karate:
Indeed Itosu was so well trained that his entire body seemed to be invulnerable. Once, as he was about to enter a restaurant in Naha's amusment center, a sturdy young man attacked him from the rear, aiming a hearty blow at his side. But the latter, without even turning, hardened the muscles of his stomach so that the blow glanced off his body, and at the very same instant his right hand grasped the right wrist of his assailant. Still without turning his head, he calmly dragged the man inside the restaurant.
There, he ordered the frightened waitress to bring food and wine. Still holding the man's wrist with his right hand, he took a sip of the wine from the cup that he held in his left hand, then pulled his assailant around in front of him and for the first time had a look at him. After a moment, he smiled and said, "I don't know what your grudge against me could be, but let's have a drink together!"
You can read a more complete account of the tale here.
Contrast this with a another example; a master who presents a completely different way of handling a modern scenario.
I think the contrast between these two examples speaks for itself. Where Itosu offered his assailant wine and a new life, Wong's response is characterized by "violence of action" ending - in all likelihood - with incarceration for manslaughter. His way violates the first precept of Buddhism that has long accompanied his art while Itosu's fulfills it in a model reminiscent of Christ's command to "go and sin no more". It comes as no surprise to me that I'm drawn to examples such as Itosu; men who spend years studying violence yet in the moment of truth model a Christ-like humility and profound compassion.
It's what the martial arts are all about.
It's why I do what I do.