I recently attended a martial arts seminar that was just plain disturbing. The highlight of the demo portion was a series of defenses against a knife attack. Nearly every routine went like this: Block the stabbing arm, throw the attacker, apply a wrist lock and cut his neck with his own knife.
What bothered me was the thoughtlessness with which the students drew rubber knives across bare throats. Their actions meant death, and there was no sign these martial artists — some of whom were as young as 12 or 13 — understood it.
Killing someone is horrible. Even if you are justified in taking a life, it means the absolute end of another human being. No one ever really makes peace with having killed someone. It is a humbling thing, a black stain on your soul that never goes away. I’d wager that no one in that demonstration ever cut into another living thing, much less a human throat. If they had, they wouldn’t have taken it so lightly.
I guess what really bothers me is that this cavalier attitude toward killing is not confined to that demonstration or even the art that was featured. I’ve seen attackers get dispatched with their own rubber weapons in a dozen demos from as many different arts. What is disturbing is that we no longer take death seriously.
We don’t take death seriously because we don’t have to. Most of us live comfortable lives in a relatively safe society. The martial arts are no longer a necessity for survival. They are a bourgeois hobby — $75 a month to get in shape and learn self-confidence. But the level of comfort we’ve achieved in contemporary martial arts is a subtle betrayal. Comfort is not what brought the arts into being or sustained them for thousands of years; an omnipresent threat of assault and murder did.
The people who founded the martial arts we now study took death seriously. They did because they had to. They couldn’t count on police to protect them or hospitals to heal them. In the lawless societies that spawned the fighting arts, violent confrontation was part of everyday life. And without the safety net of dependable and accessible health care, each injury was potentially fatal. This is why the ancient masters were so secretive, treating each technique with ritual awe. Their actions had absolute consequence, and they were acutely aware of it. Death was never far away.
Now that violent confrontation is no longer an everyday occurrence, we no longer feel our own mortality. We play at death, carving each other up with rubber knives to titillate crowds. We give lectures on our “deadly” or “lethal” techniques, then congratulate ourselves on restraining our righteous anger. We talk about death like we understand it and have it under control. But we don’t.
If there is one thing that is sorely lacking in the martial arts, it is an understanding that life is brief and fragile and that this is the reason we learn discipline and respect in the dojo.
As martial artists, we must always remember that our actions can have absolute consequences.
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For more information about Keith Vargo and his martial arts writings, visit his blog.