Years ago, I traveled to the west coast for training at a weekend event. During one of the segments, I was given the task of defending another person, who was to be attacked.
At the time, I was a highly adept martial artist, training since I was nine, and had 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!
When a fellow went after my protectee, I jumped in using 20-odd years of experience to handily dispatch him. I was pretty satisfied, as I loomed over the aggressor, now face down in the dust, and twisted him into an airtight submission. I wanted to impress folks watching. I 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 his safety, only I couldn’t find him—he’d been silently nabbed by an unknown second attacker. Cue the laugh track for this fool. I was 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 wants to admit they possess: a weakness they weren't even aware they had.
My bias toward my own ability lacked the one thing necessary for right action: clarity of what I ought to do. My job, my role, in that moment was not about attacking an attacker. It was about defending the person I was 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. In that moment, I was convinced I was doing the right thing, but I was wrong. I was confused. And I failed in my ethical duty.
Unfortunately, there is too much ambivalence toward the moral-physical fundamentals of the martial way. It takes the form of confusion about 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 examine them close up and they will inevitably travel full circle to their originating purpose: protecting self and others.
I think everybody ought to embrace and endure martial training for some period of their life, if only to reveal the profound effect its skills and philosophy have on our self-worth. And what is more important, 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 for themselves.
The clarity of this protector ethic is by far the most important lesson of martial expression because it puts every lesson in context: protecting others is to protect oneself. And when we can protect self and others, we can 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 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 dignity of human “being?”
Martial training clarifies and allows us to embrace these most basic inclinations that are epitomized within the tradition known as “Natural Law.” Apprehending our natural ethic, as well as the physicality to protect it morally, empowers our self-respect to take action in defense of ourselves and others.
The protector ethic is nothing short of a willingness to risk our 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.
Shidoshi & Dojo Cho
Bujinkan Shingitai-Ichi Dojo