When I look at today’s martial arts, or at least the martial arts that are highly visible, most of what I see is an emphasis on brutal efficiency. The question on the minds of the martial artists that dominate the spotlight seems to be “Who can distill the most damaging techniques?” Of course, it is these spotlighted figures who have the means to reach the masses, effectively presenting an image of the martial arts as a violent contest to see who can leave behind the bloodiest and most broken heap of a formerly whole human. I guess that this can be expected by a sub-culture that created the Octagon but, expected or not, I can’t help but find it unsettling. Is this need to inflict injury necessary? To be sure, we should concern ourselves with effective and efficient ways to defend ourselves and those we care for, but do we need to inflict lasting (and sometimes permanent) injuries on those who have aggressed us? Is it possible that we as martial artists – as humans trained in hand-to-hand and melee combat – have a responsibility to be compassionate even to those who have threatened us? For many, this is a very counter-intuitive idea, but I hope I can at least get you thinking.
I believe that any practitioner of the martial arts who trains with even moderate diligence, spirit, and focus has given themselves a tremendous advantage in the sphere of hand-to-hand combat. Of course, there will always be exceptions, but it would follow that the practice of martial arts would impart upon the student some amount of physical power over a person they may be confronting.
Doesn’t it seem natural that the person with the most power in a given interaction should also bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for the outcome of that interaction? If not, I ask you to consider the police officer who feels no sense of responsibility for the petty thief and who feels righteous in shooting a young man who stole a new stereo. Or perhaps the businessman who feels no sense of responsibility to his employees and promotes his under-qualified friend, rather than the qualified worker, into the new management position is another good example. Clearly, both of these scenarios illustrate an abuse of power by an individual, but I would then ask you to consider one more scenario.
Consider the martial artist who is attacked by an unarmed man. This scene could take place in a parking lot, a bar, an empty street, a college party or any number of other locales. The martial student can immediately tell something is about to happen and the adrenaline flows uninhibited. The attacker punches with a sloppily arching right (most contemporary American martial artist’s dream) and, before there is time for thought, body memory kicks in. Whatever technique dominates the student’s body memory immediately manifests itself and the aggressor is soon doubled over or lying on the floor. Isn’t this, too, an abuse of power? As in the two former examples with the policeman and the businessman, one person holds more power and has used that power to hurt another person with less of that commodity. Why the violent reaction?
It seems like there are three mian culprits on the desire to hurt an opponent: fear, ego, and righteous wrath. Any of these, or any combination of them, can cause and/or justify a violent response to an attack. Fear, for instance, carries with it the need to end a threat quickly. Despite bravado, most of us still hold some amount of fear as to the result of an encounter due to the numerous unknown elements. Sure, the martial artist has an advantage over the average person, but is this person who you now confront the average person? Does the aggressor have a weapon that they might use against you? What random circumstances may interfere? All of these concepts are valid, but is fear the force that you wish to have govern your life? Are these possibilities reason enough to inflict massive amounts of pain or lasting injury on another person?
Our ego is something that is particularly insidious. What image do we want or need to have of ourselves? What image do we want or need others to have of us? This concern about our image to ourselves and others is of particular importance for the martial artist. After all, we are studying an art that confers upon us power over other beings. This is an internal aspect that both martial artists and non-martial artists need to reflect upon, but it becomes of immediate importance for those of us who are training in methods of combat. This is a major point of concern for martial artists for it is martial artists who have the immediate capacity to cause serious wounds on others if our ego is not kept in check.
There also exists the danger of the righteous wrath. This can best be summed up in the all too familiar phrase, “He deserves what he got.” One can only ask if the opponent really deserved what he got. Does a person who throws a punch at you deserve a broken arm? To be honest, this idea seems a bit savage. We need to remember that as trained combatants, it is we who carry the potential for inflicting real and lasting harm.
My point here is not to imply that martial artists should not defend themselves or that they should not train in combat techniques, but rather to say that we should temper our martial abilities with compassion. It is my hope that practitioners of all styles will migrate away from the ‘ultimate fighting’ mentality and begin to this about their own role and responsibility as the likely holders of power within combative interaction. I’m not even saying that there is never a good reason to inflict serious injury. On the contrary, I do believe that there are appropriate times for unchecked reaction. It is the responsibility of the martial artist to look at the underlying reasons for causing serious injury to another and to question if that reason is valid. That is, spending your time just practicing techniques that program your body memory to leave your opponent broken and bleeding is irresponsible and an abuse of power. I am asking for all martial artists to put serious consideration into the following question: Is it possible that martial artists, those trained in hand-to-hand and melee combat, have a responsibility even to those who threaten us?