Compassion in the Martial Arts

I recently had a conversation with some people who wondered if there could be any place for compassion in the martial arts in general, and certainly in Iaido, or Japanese swordsmanship in particular.

It may be useful to start by considering the idea of Bushido, or "the Way of the Warrior". A lot of people have heard about Bushido, but often through a very distorted perspective. This is not least because the ideas have been smeared by the inexcusable behaviour of some Japanese in the Second World War. These individuals were not, by the way, samurai. That class had long since been dissolved in the Meiji Restoration.

The closest analogous concept for us in the West is that of Chivalry and the word has similar linguistic roots. Now, we do not believe that Christian knights always behaved in a way that was above reproach, do we? Certainly not, but we do not throw out the baby with the bath water. The legend of Arthur is a romanticised and idealised idea of chivalry but one that has inspired many to better conduct.

Bushido lists seven virtues (some say the seven folds in a hakama represent these), which I will borrow the listing of from wikipedia rather than mess with the kanji myself:

Do you find any of this list surprising? It might temper your view of how a warrior might see himself. Perhaps you did not expect respect and benevolence to make such a list.

I think it's a nice list to consider with a martial art like aikido which is a modern budo that seeks to avoid gratuitous damage to the "opponent". For the practitioners of such an art, it provides a compass for our behaviour. I constantly emphasise the importance of compassion in aikido when I teach, and strive to embody it in practice. There are actually pragmatic and selfish reasons why this behaviour is martially more effective; you do not damage joints you need to effect control; you do not provoke responses you need to contain and so on. Some might argue if compassion with self-interest is still compassion. The concept of cause and effect, or karma provides a strong incentive for acting appropriately, isn't it a bonus that it is not merely "right" but also effective?

But the sword is not a weapon designed to control or subdue but to kill. There is a Japanese word katsujinken, the sword that gives life. What can that mean? It can have many meanings. It could mean to not use the sword when not necessary, to fight without fighting.

Compassion requires the love of others. I feel I have long understood that. It has taken me longer to realise it also implies the love of one's self, and I still struggle with the consequences of that. Compassion can manifest itself in many ways. Exercising compassion may require hard and apparently brutal choices to avoid greater suffering caused by another path. Such choices can be be traumatic for the one who acts as well as to those whom it appears to affect the most. Reconsider the list of seven virtues in that context if you will. The samurai were required to take quick, just decisions, and see them through, with all that entailed.

To assist another as they commit Seppuku was (it is now illegal in Japan) an act of respect, benevolence and compassion. There are many stories of samurai acting as seconds for both their closest friends, and their defeated enemies to shorten their suffering. To regretfully, but decisively take a life to protect one's own can be an act of compassion (to one's self), and in many cases as an act to protect the lives of many innocent others.

A final thought from the modern era. If you found yourself in a hijacked plane post 2001, with the split second opportunity and means to kill the hijacker, would it not be a compassionate act to swiftly and decisively kill that person before they could take any action to kill so many others? Might it not even be an act of compassion towards that person and their family?

If you seek mastery of the sword, seek first sincerity of the heart, for the former is but a reflection of the latter.

Iwakura Yoshinori

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