James Williams from the UCSD dojo poses this question on the apparent paradoxes in karate training:
“it seems that a great deal of martial arts training is designed to instill a love of life so the practitioner will struggle mightily when faced with death. This seems rather paradoxical?? Aoinagi seems to be full of these twists – we try to cultivate a gentle heart yet practice what can be a violent art; we practice long hours & even years yet hope never to use our training… There is probably not a good answer to these questions, but any thoughts on what gives?”
Okinawan people were subjected to heinous deeds by armed police. Many of these police were unscrupulous or even savage. They took what they needed, looked for the slightest infraction of the law while laying out capital punishment even for minor breaches in respect. The punishment was immediate. There were no courts of law or appeals. For the slightest error, even so little as not bowing low enough to the police, a person’s head would be severed at the time of the minor infraction.
The martial artist of Okinawa trained not to “struggle mightily when faced with death,” but to give a fight-to-the-death with honor, so that he might die without shaming family. His training was geared towards honor, not towards survival. Knowing that death was a possibility everyday of life, as it was in those dangerous times, the martial artist attempted to develop a resolute acceptance of death. If there were reason he would walk into a room, knowing full well that it was filled with drunken police ready to test their sword-blades on any human body they could find. He would not hesitate. If someone said “if you go in there you will be killed,” the martial artist would look up at the sky and say “today is as good of a day to die as any,” as he stepped past the threshold into violence.
The ancient Okinawan (and Japanese) martial artist was trained to accept the closeness of death. He was taught that life is short, that death is not to be feared only death without dignity. The martial artist accepted that he was to die soon. He trained for dying soon. But because he knew he had only a short time to live, he wanted to live life to its fullest. So he did. This living of life to its fullest and the resolute acceptance of death may appear to us to be contractory, but they aren’t. We will all die soon (at least in geologic time). So, do we want to live life to its fullest or merely “mark time?”
Some Sensei of old developed teaching techniques which helped their students to live life to its fullest as well as other techniques which helped their students to die with honor. The techniques and goals became a part of the training of the bushi, and were called shugyo.
The apparent paradox, I hope, dissolves. Knowing the violent society he lived in harbored danger and probable death in a short time, the martial artist released himself from the care of dying and concentrated on living this moment for everything he could squeeze from it. He savored his food, looked at the sunsets, wrote poetry about swallows, drew pictures in the sand at low tide, went to train with his Sensei, fasted to feel hunger, gave his last coin to a beggar, had a massage and hot tub, rolled in the snow, sat for hours in a rainstorm listening to the drops on the roof of the hut, prayed to God…and then died in a maelstrom of kicks, punches and flashing blades. He had lived life to its fullest; he had died with honor.
The reality of this shugyo training (living life to its fullest, while preparing to die with honor) was a reality in old Okinawa. Itosu Yatsusune had 78 battles to the death in his life. These were not staged battles nor were they childhood fights. They didn’t even occur at time of war. These were battles between Itosu and other Okinawan and Japanese people. Such an enormous death toll was not surprising in old Okinawa, the fact that one man won so many was surprising. Feudal Okinawa was far more violent than modern America is. We read about violence and watch it on the television and many of us know someone who has been slain, but in old Okinawa people died in life-and-death situations frequently. If Itosu had 78 battles to the death in which he won all, what percentage of less-well trained people would have died from violence in such a society? The answer might be staggering.
Given such violence, life was preciously short. Martial arts Sensei were not satisfied with teaching a student to fight. They were not even satisfied with teaching a student to die with honor. They wanted to teach a student to live as an artist of life might live, fight like a martial artist might fight, and die honorably.