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Character Matters

These days, there exists a lot of cynicism around being a good person.  Often the people we revere or admire disappoint us.  The inconsistencies of people to stick with their values is rubbed in our faces on a daily basis.  Its depressing!

Embedded in the martial arts is a pathway for character development that is fundamental and realistic.  It recognizes that we are imperfect creatures with both positive and negative qualities and  requires that we see ourselves clearly.  We are urged to see others as we see ourselves.  The emphasis is on the Will, on choice, and on responsibility for the consequences of our actions. 

Universality of Martial Values

Recognition of a warrior class is a human universal.  The simplest definition of a warrior is “one who wages war”.  To be a warrior is fundamentally harsh and even brutal but most cultures strangely ascribe almost spiritual qualities to warriors.  What do you really think of this?  Is there really a spiritual component to fighting or is it all just about brutality?  Why are there warriors in the first place?  Are they good people or not?  What function do they really serve?  Are they pawns to the military industrial complex or protectors of the community?  How does the concept of the warrior relate to you, your life and what you think is important?


Why are there are many warrior heroes in our mythos?  Here are some of them:

Achilles, Brer Rabbit, Galahad, Jason, Penelope, Sigurd, Aeneas, Robert the Bruce, St. George, John Henry, Perseus, Sinbad the Sailor, Ajax, Paul Bunyan, Gilgamesh, Kokopelli, Prometheus, Sunjata, Aladdin, El Cid, Hector, Lancelot, Quetzalcoatl, William Tell, Antigone, Coriolanus, Hercules, Maui, Rama, Theseus, King Arthur, Davey Crockett, Hiawatha, Odysseus, Robin Hood, Ulysses, Beowulf, Cuchulain, Hunahpú, Oedipus, Roland, Yu, Daniel Boone, Finn, Xbalanqúe, Orpheus, Samson  

Why does the way of the sword fascinate so many of us?


A martial world view sees and appreciates goodness but acknowledges the potential for trouble.   Most of us have been confronted with someone or something that has risen up to stand in front of us, wishing to do harm.  Sometimes the opponent is a person.  More often the opponent is something bigger than ourselves.


The martial world view encourages strength, resiliency,  preparation and  taking responsibility.

The Dark Side

The martial arts exist in the context of a dualistic world where conflict exists and violence can be a means to an end.  The label “warrior” (which in deference to people who served really should only be used to describe people who have been through an actual war ) is in fact a neutral term and does not designate any particular morality.  A warrior can be “good”,  “bad”,  or some combination of good and bad. 


The capacity to do violence seems to be a prerequisite for the warrior.  Is it possible to be a warrior and at the same time reject violence?   Is violence just a synonym for action?  Can you say that violence is a good or a bad thing?


The warrior archetype carries with it the images of rapist, pillager, destroyer of the peace as well as hero, protector and defender.  Why is there such a dichotomy?  Is it always true that one person's hero is another's villian?


What happens when people are given power when they are either too young or too zealous and they lack the moral authority to carry the responsibility for the consequences of their actions?

See The Stanford Prison Project and Philip Zombardo


 Knights have appeared in nearly every culture thoughout the ages.  They were a special category of warrior though sometimes the term was used simply as a synonym for warrior, soldier, or fighter.   What makes knights different in our mythos and our minds?


To muddy things up a lot, there were people called knights who were real bad guys.  But the idea of a special kind of warrior has nevertheless persisted over the ages.  We still want to believe in knights. 


What makes a knight stand out?


I think that there are two qualities to being a knight.  The first is prowess.  A high level of martial skill is required by the knight.  This martial skill provides precision and control over the opponent, the environment and the self.  So a knight ought to possess both the capacity for and the skills of action. 

The second quality that defines a knight is character. Knightly traditions have a code of honour to support their martial prowess.  According to Geoffroe di Charny in The Knights Own Book of Chivalry, it was an unusual knight who excelled in all of the character values of knighthood.  These impeccable people, if they ever truly existed,  were rare and very special.  

Prowess and character blend together in this archetype, glued by discipline and a kind of austere sacrifice for others. 


What follows is a poem from Japan about these qualitites.  


I Have No Parents

I make the heavens and the earth my parents. 

I have no home: 

I make awareness my home. 

I have no life or death: 

I make the tides of breathing my life and death. 

I have no divine power: 

I make honesty my divine power: 

I have no means: 

I make understanding my means. 

I have no magic secrets: 

I make character my magic secret. 

I have no body: 

I make endurance my body. 

I have no eyes: 

I make the flash of lightning my eyes. 

I have no ears: 

I make sensibility my ears. 

I have no limbs: 

I make promptness my limbs. 

I have no strategy: 

I make "unshadowed by thought" my strategy. 

I have no designs: 

I make seizing opportunity by the forelock my design. 

I have no miracles: 

I make right action my miracles. 

I have no principles: 

I make adaptability to all circumstances my principles. 

I have no tactics: 

I make emptiness and fullness my tactics. 

I have no talents: 

I make ready wit my talent. 

I have no friends: 

I make my mind my friend. 

I have no enemy: 

I make carelessness my enemy. 

I have no armour: 

I make benevolence and righteousness my armour. 

I have no castle: 

I make immovable mind my castle. 

I have no sword: 

I make absence of self my sword. 

Anonymous Samurai, 14th Century

Existential Quests

Perhaps you think that character values are lofty, unrealistic, and overly philosophical.   This is actually fine if you think that.  By practicing earnestly, though,  you may instead discover that the character values of martial arts are realistic, pragmatic and can be experientially derived.  Specifically, practicing the martial arts encourages you to look at two "quests" that are fundamental to our existence as human beings.


The first quest is to face your fears.  The second quest is to face yourself. * 

*I learned these quests from my karate teacher, Mr. Ohshima, and I am eternally grateful to him because of this.


Facing Fears


Mr. Ohshima used to tell us that there are two kinds of fear which he occasionally referred to as "Natural and Unnatural".


Natural fear is the fear of real danger.  This is what you feel when you are facing something that can physically hurt you such as standing too close to the edge of a cliff.  This fear stimulates your awareness and quickens your resolve.  You can start out by facing natural fears one by one.

"If you are afraid of the water, jump in!"


Unnatural fear comes from beliefs, images, and memories based on past experiences and the experiences of others.  They are deep and attack your very core.  You might feel this fear as deep shame or irrational anger.  Such fear will freeze and debilitate you. It will cloud your awareness.  You need to face these things as well.


This quest of facing fears is never complete.  When you face fears you can learn the difference between Natural and Unnnatural fears right in the moment.  Its possible to clear unnatural fears out of the way.

Courage, bravery, discipline, and tenacity are developed by facing fears. 

Facing Yourself


If you face yourself you will understand the choices that you make and the context within which you make those choices.  Facing yourself is to see yourself clearly.   Initially when you face yourself you may not like what you see.  For example, you may discover level upon level of unnatural fears laying there influencing you.  You may realize just how driven by fear you have been.   


Or perhaps there is a part of you, born out of adversity, that is dark and monstrous.  Initially whatever this is may have saved you and you learned to rely on it.  But this part of you may have hurt many people unnecessarily by your fear biting, reacting to some deep and unconscious perception of threat.

Or inaction and excess caution may have inhibited you when you ought to have made a stand.


These are examples of how our darker sides can affect us.  You cannot deny that you have a dark side.  In a way it has often been a supreme advocate for your own safety, however misguided it may have been.   If you recognize this in you, embrace it, delve into it and make it a friend it can serve you.


By facing yourself you will finally see yourself clearly.  The monster can become a protector. Ironically, by accepting your darkness and taking responsibility for it you will unfetter that which is good in you as well.

By taking responsibility for who you really are and the choices that you have made you may learn that you are not so different from others when before this you may have been guilty of pride. 


Seeing yourself clearly builds humility and integrity. Humility leads to reverence, benevolence, and kindnessIntegrity further leads to trustworthiness, loyalty, honesty, and honour.

More on the Martial View of Reality

Martial skill requires discipline and tenacity to develop.  To build martial skill you have to practice.  Practice and training are different activities.  Training is purely physical.  Practice is to use training as a metaphor and proving ground.  It is an activity that builds deep character values as skill is developed.  Practice occurs in the context of a world of danger and potential conflict mixed in with good things.  Martial skill born of practice includes a spiritual and philosophical world view that is unique in that is embedded in action and physicality. 

The martial view of reality includes three paradigms.  The first paradigm describes the unity of all things.  This perspective is evidenced by the admonition “The mind, body, and spirit are one”.  The second paradigm describes the universe as dualistic with multi-scalar systems and flows.  The third paradigm is about taking action and the responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

Mind, Body and Spirit are One.

Try this. Your emotions manifest in your posture and your eyes .  Use posture to combat awkwardness or nervousness.  Elongate your spine as you pull your shoulders down.  Open your chest and breath from the belly.  Put your hands on your hips with knees slightly bent, weight on yout toes, feet shoulder width apart.


Learn to make yourself 'heavy' as an antidote to fear. 


The mind refers to the intellect and also to knowledge, thoughts, and our understanding.  The body refers to our own body but also to the physical reality of the universe.  Spirit refers to the emotions but also to the spiritual perspective of the universe.  It is the spiritual manifestation of the universe in the here and now.  This paradigm states that mind, body, and spirit are all different manifestations of the same unity.  The three manifestations cannot contradict one another.  If it seems as though there is a contradiction, then something is wrong with your understanding.  This truth manifests at the level of the individual as well as the universe.

For example, there is no contradiction between the concept of “I-am” as a mind, as a collection of biochemical processes, or as a soul.  This unity is a characteristic of our reality and is not about what precedes or what follows.

Lessons of Unity (from T'Ai Chi Ch'uan for Health and Self-Defense: Philosophy and Practice  by TT Liang)

Central Equilibrium 

The calm condition prior to extending, contracting, open, or closed.  This is a condition of meditation, awareness, and unity.  It is the condition that you wait in, poised to act but not yet acting.  It is the place where you can foresee.


Light and alert energy at the top of the head

“The clear spirit of vitality and deeply sinking chi maintain their natural aspect. Drifting hither and thither, diving into the waves, let the wind and the waves hit you and blow you; your top is light, your bottom heavy; you cannot be overturned.”

To know before the action

“Before the action” means that Yin and Yang have not yet separated. It is utterly infinitesimal, almost nonexistent.  To perceive this moment is called foreseeing. It has no sound, no smell, is formless and bodiless.  To apply this, it must be done when no movement or definite posture has occurred.  From nothingness something is created.  Seize the opportunity to act.


To give up ones self and follow the other.

“Motion and Tranquility are nature.  Yin and yang are the principle.  The Nature and the Principle are the source of the Way. Diligent practice brings the skill of interpreting energy; beyond this achievement lies the ultimate goal, complete mastery of an opponent without recourse to detecting his energy.  When your technique becomes so fine and delicate that you can create a superior position of your own and a defect in your opponent without worrying about not being able to get to a superior position or without having to create a defective position for the opponent, you will have reached the stage in which you can yield everywhere at the opponent’s slightest pressure and adhere to his slightest retreat- this is called “giving up oneself and following the other”

Dualism, Systems, and Flow

Dualism is a view of reality that consists of paired, dynamic opposites.  This is the concept of yin and yang from Chinese natural philosophy but it was also present in Western religion, philosophy and alchemy.  


The perception of unity as opposed to the perception of duality is a matter of scale and also of timing.


If you expand your perspective, duality becomes unity.  Expand further, and what you perceive as unity becomes a part of some bigger dynamic pattern of duality and flow.  We live at a scale of time and space where both unity and duality can be perceived.

Prior to action we have unity.  Once we commence we have duality.


From a dualistic point of view, the world consists of a dynamic constantly changing flow between dynamic opposites such as light and dark, good and bad,  or hard and soft. 


According to this paradigm, danger exists as partner to safety.  Your ability to discern patterns in the flow between this duality will form a basis for tactics and strategy.  

Lessons of duality (also from T'Ai Chi Ch'uan for Health and Self-Defense: Philosophy and Practice  by TT Liang) 

Feeling and Sensibility

What the body feels the mind senses. Where there is feeling there is response.  Every movement creates feeling, when there is feeling there is response; after responding there is again the feeling of responding; after this feeling of responding there is another response.  Feeling and responding create each other ceaselessly.  When the principle of feeling and response is exercised to the most refined and delicate state, then it can be applied inexhaustibly for practical use. When your feeling and sensibility are ingenious and alert, the changes will be fine, delicate and inexhaustible.


When I question he answers. One’s question and the others answer produces movement.  When there is movement, the substantial and insubstantial are clearly differentiated.  When practicing, I detect with my mind and question with my energy.  After he answers, I then “hear” or perceive his substantial and insubstantial aspects.  It there is no answer to my inquiry then I can advance and attack.  Ih he answers then I must perceive the speed of his movement and the direction of his advance or retreat.

Substantial and Insubstantial

These aspects have to be discriminated clearly. Each single part of the body has a substantial and insubstantial aspect simultaneously as does the whole.  If his body is insubstantial do not push lest you fall into his trap.  To pull down you must first push up.  If your opponent does not move you do not move.  At his slightest stir you have already anticipated it and moved.  “At the slightest stir” means that the opponents body has become substantial so before he is able to issue his energy to attack, one takes the opportunity to uproot him.


Eight important Phrases that speak about how dualism is used to create tactics (from Karate do Kyohan: The Master Text and the Bubishi)

The mind is the same with heaven and earth

The circulatory rhythm of the body is similar to the sun and the moon

The Law includes hardness and softness

Act in accordance with time and change

Techniques will occur when a void is found

The “ma” requires advancing and retreating, separating and meeting.  (Ma describes the sublime relationship between timing and distancing)

The eyes do not miss even the slightest change

The ears listen well in all directions.

On Action


The martial world view encourages taking action and tells us that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions.  Our actions define us and they place us in context to that which is larger than ourselves and this builds humility.  Action is embedded in reality, moves us along a path and teaches us.  Right action is the marriage of dreams and practicality.


In practice, we do not sit around and talk.  Instead, we try things out and we stay focused on improving through experience.  This builds discipline and tenacity.  In practice you do not get to escape pain.  The pain that comes with action “is acute, scars you and makes you grow.”  The pain that comes from inaction is “low-grade, softens you and decays your soul.”

Thoughts about Action (Drawn from : On the Value of Action)


Perhaps the reason that you don’t feel alive is because you’ve worn yourself out thinking about things instead of actually doing them. You haven’t moved because your habit is to flinch away from action. You unconsciously refuse to see the falsity in your old beliefs, your old fears, and your old habits.


To commit to action bears the weight of an oath.  Taking an action pushes you into a new way of living that you have not imagined before. 


“If you are afraid of the water, jump into the lake.”   


You push through fears, seeing that it wasn’t as bad as you thought, and then you do it again. Committing to action doesn’t end once you get somewhere. It means you never stop pushing.


It takes courage to accept the consequences of your actions.  You can head in a certain direction, make plans, and to the best of your lights at the moment, avoid the paths you know are bad.  But you cannot know what will happen and you cannot tame Fate.  There will be consequences for your actions, good and bad.  This is something that you accept.


You can train yourself to be more prepared.  Through experience, repetition, and contest.


But that does not really change the sensation of leaping into the unknown. Honest action won’t create certainty. Your choice to act may not always make sense to you or those around you. Nevertheless, it will straighten your posture to do so. You won’t fear what others fear. You won’t regret what the others will. You’ll have scars and remember the lessons they taught you. Others will look fragile because while they kept their training wheels on you let yourself fall down,  endured the pain, and did it again.


So go ahead and prepare. Then, before you think you’re ready, begin. This will provide you more useful information than any amount of abstract research ever could. 


The fatal mistake is waiting to be motivated before you take action.  Action itself motivates. Action frees you from the dangers of indecision. Then, eventually, it makes you invincible to them.


And maybe you’ll like what you think you want want. Maybe your dream is your real dream…you won’t know until you move towards it.  This is accepting the consequences for your actions.


Taking action is freeing yourself from fairytales and connecting to reality. The Tibetan Bhuddists talk about WindHorse.  Windhorse is the marriage of dreams and practicality.  That is how you live.


After all, everything is used up — the good and the bad alike. Everything is transformed or amplified for the good of life. Everything in your history helps push you. Every weakness creates your strengths.



 Faith is defined as a willingness to question everything rather than holding rigidly to a dogma.


Rituals , whether they are religious, philosophical, creative, and otherwise can often provide peace, strength, and inspiration much more potently than talking, reading, or statically thinking because they are actions.

The Warrior Creed by Robert L. Humphrey


Wherever I walk,

everyone is a little bit safer because I am there.


Wherever I am,

anyone in need has a friend.


Whenever I return home,

everyone is happy I am there.

Robert L. Humphrey was a WW2 marine stationed on Okinawa.  He was given the job of keeping the peace between the occupying forces and the Okinawans after the war was over.  The Okinawans were small people and many were simple farmers.  Humphrey had quite a time of it. The American soldiers had a lot of anger towards their enemies. One Minnesotan farm boy in particular was a terrible bully.  One day, Humphrey took the farm boy out to meet the Okinawan farmers.  Initially the farm boy resisted but upon seeing the farming operations of the Okinawans became interested and began to ask them questions.  By that afternoon the farm boy began to see the farmers not as “other” but as part of his tribe…a tribe of farmers with the same sort of lives, problems, and issues that he had.  To understand your opponent is the first step in this process. 

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