THE ZEN MIRROR
The Duty of the Martial Artist
By Jeff Brooks
To a warrior, “duty” is essential. A warrior’s skill,
power and life itself have no meaning or purpose unless the sense of duty
is clear, and we act in accord with it. For those serving in the military
or in law enforcement, this principle can and should form the foundation
of everything we do. That is as true now as it was in feudal Japan or
any other militarized moment in human history, as far back as we can know.
Without a sense of duty above and beyond individual interests, we may
become nothing but gangsters, living the narrow, fearful, vengeful, poisonous,
degraded life to which gangsters condemn themselves.
Civilian martial artists have choices to make.
Some can practice martial arts for the sake of vanity. They take a narcissistic
path on which they focus only on themselves – their body, their
skills, their rank, their relation to others in their hierarchy.
Others practice martial arts like thugs. Getting power to dominate and
intimidate others, as in the martial arts practice of the 9/11 bombers
and other murderers.
It is possible to practice martial arts for the sake of improved fitness
and health. To practice in search of some “deeper dimension”
of experience in physical activity (even if that deeper dimension remains
nebulous at first). And to do so in the company of other people, sharing
challenges and experiences, creating a community of fellow practitioners.
But this still is an individual pursuit in the sense that it is not one
based on duty. In my observation, it is one that will not be sustained
long enough, or intensely enough, to go very deep.
And this is not the limit of the possibilities of the practice of civilian
or “individual” martial arts.
Here is a warning: we sincere practitioners should not allow ourselves
to be distracted by the rampant trivialization of martial arts –
either the mocking portrayal in popular culture, or in its crude presentation
in some martial arts schools.
The fact that the reputation of martial arts has been degraded by phony
masters, ranks-for-sale, and pretentious dimwits who never took the time
or trouble to develop themselves as practitioners before selling themselves
as “great” or “important” does not need to trouble
us too much. To paraphrase scripture: The dopes will always be with us.
Don’t be one and you’ll be okay.
Then you will be free to practice sincerely without concern for the reputation
of other people, or how other people see you. If you know that others
are getting undeserved recognition when you or your sincere friends and
teachers are not getting as much then I would recommend not troubling
yourself too much about it.
It is better to be accomplished than to be well-known. In our decadent
society greatness is not always recognized or rewarded. Be quiet and humble
and practice deeply.
Which is why the sense of duty is so important – as important for
individual practitioners of martial arts as it is for those in police
or military service.
If you are practicing so that you can defend your precious life from
harm: good. If you are motivated to make yourself strong and sharp so
you can take care of the people who depend on you – family, friends,
neighbors, innocent strangers everywhere: that motivation itself will
be a great source of personal power and inspiration for your practice.
If you are training in order to stay healthy, to make the most of your
life, to be of use to others as much and as long as you can, you will
always have a mind open to fresh technical possibilities and the energy
for a fruitful, useful, satisfying practice.
If you are training to be appreciated, recognized as someone who is extra-cool
and better than others, you will always feel under-appreciated, resentful
and have a practice that is unsatisfying – no matter how famous
I would also mention that to be sincere and humble and strong and useful
is only the foundation. We can take our martial arts practice as far as
we want. There is no limit imposed on our practice or on how great we
can become through it except by the limits we impose upon ourselves.
But we must go step by step, leaping over nothing on the way to our goal,
no matter how high our aspiration. Having as a motivation the profound
desire to save all beings from suffering is a very high motivation. But
understand, we have to do what we must do to manifest that motivation.
Just to say we have it, or want to have it, will not help much. There
is no point in using martial arts to achieve enlightenment unless you
can throw a punch. Unless you can help your teacher, your fellow practitioners,
your students, do what they need to do today. Teach them. Learn from them.
Work with them. Sweep the floor. Pay the bills. Train consistently and
sincerely. Fear nothing: not your opponent, not your limits, not old age,
That is your duty as an individual martial artist. That is the calling
that, if you make it yours, will focus your practice and make it utterly
meaningful, for a lifetime and perhaps, beyond.
About The Author:
Jeffrey Brooks, Seventh Degree Black Belt, US Shorin Ryu
Karate, has been the director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton,
Massachusetts since 1987 and director of Northampton Zendo since 1993.
He is author of “Rhinoceros Zen – Zen Martial Arts and the
Path to Freedom.” His column Zen Mirror and other articles appear
FightingArts.com is pleased to announce its first
book: “Rhinoceros Zen –Zen
Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom,” by Jeffrey Brooks, a work
that portrays the dual paths and interplay between Zen and Karate-do.
and easy to read, it is full of insight and wisdom. It is a rewarding
read for any martial artist.
(Softcover, 300 pages, illustrated)