Posted by: B Gourley | October 23, 2009

Buddhism, Martial Arts, and Morality

I’ve been reading a lot about the common history of Buddhism and Asian martial arts as of late. There is a body of literature on the subject because it presents an intriguing puzzle. Namely, how did the most pacifistic of the major world religions produce (or, perhaps more accurately, spread along side) what were among the most capable warrior arts of their day?

Some have written that martial artists were attracted to Buddhism, but Buddhism had little to do with martial arts. The first part of that statement is certainly correct, but the second part does not jibe with the historical record. It is true that warriors had good reason to be attracted to Buddhism. The state of mental clarity and imperturbableness that come from the practice of meditation and the Buddhist approach of non-attachment are of great benefit to a fighter. There are a number of ways in which cultivation of the capacity to not let the mind get stuck and to objectively observe the actions of the mind could lend an advantage. I recently read Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s Joy of Living, and in it there is a story about how the Rinpoche’s father once had a surgery during which the anesthetist had failed to apply a local anesthetic.  The story describes the elder monk’s ability to not only manage the pain, but later to defend the anesthetist against the surgeon’s rebuke. Needless to say, an ability to detach from pain to that extent would be of great advantage to a combatant.

However, the stance that real Buddhists didn’t actually have anything to do with the martial arts seems to be a view rooted in a modern-day experience without an understanding of the history. This is not to say that most Buddhists have ever at any point in history practiced the martial arts, but certainly there are groups who were at once monks and warriors and yet other non-martial artist Buddhists who benefited from the protection of warrior monks and lay Buddhist warriors.

I can imagine an outcry of objection to the preceding paragraph from individuals who have the luxury of being able to take the most extreme position on the use of violent means, and who apply their worldview to the subject. If you are a Buddhist in modern-day San Diego, Warsaw, or Osaka, you can go about practicing your beliefs and engage in the most extreme pacifistic position – because doing so is without cost. By this I mean to say, if you live some place where you are free to practice your religion without persecution and where life is reasonably safe, it is easy to say one should never – under any circumstance – engage in an act of violence. Day-in-and-day-out you live life without any cause to defend yourself, so the extreme of pacifism is a moot and cheap position.

However, this was not always the case for Buddhists historically. Like practitioners of other religions and philosophies, during some eras Buddhists lived and died at the whim of the present leadership. Take, for example, China’s Tang Dynasty. During the first part of this era, Buddhism flourished in China, but in the latter years Buddhists were savagely persecuted. As I understand it, the warriors of the systems that were the precursors of the Japanese schools that I study arrived in Japan from China during the late Tang Dynasty, and were presumably exiled Buddhists. Of course, one need not go back to the Tang Dynasty to see this changing of fates. The latter half of the 2oth century and Mao’s Cultural Revolution will do.

How does one reconcile the combination of pious religious practice and unvarnished whoop-ass displayed by Shaolin monks or the Souhei of Japan’s Mount Hiei (not to leave out the many other places in which Buddhism and martial arts were successfully conjoined.) To my mind, it is not that difficult.

Clearly, the use of injurious force to bend another to one’s will is fundamentally un-Buddhist. (Not to say it hasn’t been done by Buddhists, but it is inconsistent with the belief system. Buddhists are certainly not immune to the phenomenon witness among other religions of having “adherents” not practice what is “preached” in the scriptures, sermons, or lectures.) One can see examples of the rejection of force as a tool of persuasion operationally in the History books.  More than one leader went from expanding their Empires to, upon becoming Buddhist, stopping their warring ways. I have heard a Mongolian say, part in jest and part not, that Buddhism was the worst thing that ever happened to Mongolia. This referring to the fact that the country went from being the largest Empire of its time to a virtually unheard of backwater of a country, in part, with widespread adoption of the religion. As I recall, there was a king who ruled in South East Asia and, I believe, at least part of [then] India, who is an even better example of the way in which Buddhism has been known to quell bellicosity.

That being said, there is nothing in the above paragraph that suggests Buddhism and the martial arts should be considered incompatible. One of the most widespread and engrained beliefs about rights is that one has the right to protect oneself and others against violent attacks. Using damaging force to end attacks against oneself or against others in an attempt to restore peace and tranquility, is not the same as using force to damage or coerce another. At both an individual and state level, the right to self-defense is as universal a right as one is likely to find in the world. Without such a right, it would be hard to imagine an orderly and peaceful society in which people were free. The only way to keep immoral individuals from destroying or enslaving others would be through tyrannical oppression by the state. Of course, state tyranny would be akin to amputation to cure a twisted ankle (the cure being worse than the ailment.) In any liberal (used in the classical sense of the word and not the modern American meaning) society, police cannot be omnipresent and people must be both their own deterrent and first line of defense against the illicit use of force.

Questions do arise about the timing with which one can legitimately defend oneself. In the realm of international relations there was a lot of controversy on the topic of preemptive warfare during the George W. Bush Presidency. Interestingly, I have heard people arguing past each other on the subject because they are conflating two quite different concepts. Preemption consists of an action taken to interrupt a chain of events that constitutes a clear threat, and it is excepted by most as a reasonable extension of the right to self-defense. That is, if some one is yelling at you and then they cock back their arm for a haymaker, and you pop them in the face before they get the punch off, you are likely to be found in the right. At a state level think of massing troops on the border and putting up combat air patrols. This is not the same as preventive war, which is when one says: “This person is getting stronger and sounds more belligerent in their language, I better take them out before they do it to me.” Preventive war is rarely seen as legitimate, though there is a large history of it being done nonetheless. 

To let a person freely commit an act of aggression against others, if one has the capacity to stop it, is the antithesis of compassion. It is not only incompassionate to the innocent people who suffer at the hands of the aggressor, but also to the aggressor him or herself (who misses out on the ability to learn a lesson on karma.)

In summation, violence to force others to submit to one’s will – bad; violence as the only means available to resist an act of aggression in progress- good.

I should be clear, the preceding three paragraphs express my own personal philosophy, and are not necessarily consistent with Buddhist scripture. However, it should be noted that Buddhist scripture is not silent on the subject, and refers to examples in which it is appropriate to use “skillful means” or “the expeditious”. As I am not a Buddhist scholar, I will not engage in the quoting of scripture, but will say that one can see some examples cited in the scholarly literature (e.g. See: McFarlane, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 17(4))  An example was the case in which a monk who assassinated a Tibetan king in 842 CE was justified because of the great persecution the king was engaging in against the sangha (Buddhist community.)

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