Some years ago I traveled to the west coast for training at a weekend event. During one of the segments, I was called to the front and given the task of physically defending another person who was to be attacked. Now, I was a highly adept martial artist training since I was nine and even lived in Japan for several years studying with the very best teachers of my art. I was not concerned about getting physical with an attacker. The attacker should be concerned about being attacked by me.

A fellow stepped up and proceeded to attack my protectee at which point I interceded to use my 20-odd years of experience to handily dispatch him. I remember feeling pretty satisfied as I loomed over the aggressor, now face down in the dust, and twisted him into an airtight submission. I probably wanted to impress folks watching. I probably wanted them to think I was a possessor of great skill. I remember that moment as well as I remember the next: turning to my protectee to acknowledge their safety, only I couldn’t find them. He’d been silently nabbed by an unknown second attacker – cue the laugh track and the fool. I could be thankful it had not been “real life.”

A teacher, mentor, and friend – Jack Hoban – arranged the fiasco to occur. He had nothing against me, he was simply taking advantage of the chance to teach a larger lesson. And I have never forgotten the lesson. It laid bare the one thing no professional ever wants to admit they possess – a weakness they weren’t even aware they had. My bias toward my own ability to serve up skill when needed lacked the one thing truly necessary for right action: clarity of what one ought to do. My job, my role, in that moment was not about attacking an attacker. It was about defending the person I was supposed to safeguard. It was about protecting their life. It was about being a protector.

After all my years of training and experience one might think I should have already known this, that it would be second nature – a given. It was not. And the truth is it is not for many other professionals. In that crucial moment, I was convinced I was doing the right thing, but I was wrong. I was confused. I failed in my ethical duty.

One of the great confusions of our modern day is ambivalence of the moral-physical fundamentals of the martial way. It usually takes the form of confusion toward the single most important question for any martial artist, aspiring or professional: why train?

There are many reasons people concoct to study the martial way, but any of them inevitably travel full circle to the originating purpose behind the ancient conception and ageless refinement of the martial arts: protecting self and others. Every individual ought to embrace and endure the martial way for some period of their life, if only to reveal the profound effect its skills and philosophy empower our sense of internal self-worth. And what is more, and more important frankly, is its ability to activate a habit-formed behavior, a “protector ethic,” to stand up and defend ourselves and others who might not or cannot stand up and defend themselves.

The clarity of this protector ethic is by far the most important lesson of martial expression and for a simple reason – it puts every other lesson in context: protecting others is to protect oneself; protecting self and others is to protect the value of life.

There is no technique or martial concept, and likewise, no philosophic value, including political or religious, that demands conscientious study if it does not do the one thing required for any designation of viable truth: protect the value of life. It is no mistake that within the annals of martial history the highest order of mastery has always been the ability to undo an enemy while sparing their life, if at all possible. And within the philosophic realm, the value of life is the true source of normative vitality and relevance for all manner of metaphysical “ought-ness.” For what else exists that has the power to make sacred our highest conceptions of earthly human values, including morals, ethics, justice, and rights? What good would any of these notions be if they were twisted to violate and ravage, existing in contradiction to the existence and dignity of human “being?”

Martial training reveals, clarifies, and ultimately allows us to recognize and embrace these most basic and fundamental motivating inclinations and necessary protections that are universal for humanity and epitomized within the expression known as “Natural Law.” Apprehending these two halves – our foundational natural ethic and the physicality to enable one to protect it morally – empowers internally for the good of our own self-respecting autonomy and externally for actions taken in defense of dignity for ourselves and for others.

The protector ethic is nothing short of a willingness to risk our own self-worth to protect and ensure the self-worth of others. In this regard, to train ourselves martially is to train ourselves virtuously to become the brighter, kinder, and just person we all know we ought to be.

James Morganelli

Shidoshi & Dojo Cho

Bujinkan Shingitai-Ichi Dojo