Nonviolent Martial Arts

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Ikkajo pin from Aikido's beginner techniques


Introduction: Budo, the Arts of the Peacemaker

The Japanese character 武 (1) "bu" (for example, as found in budo, which is translated as "martial arts") can be interpreted in two opposite ways: the pictograph combines a spear with the character for a planted foot, which is used for the word to halt or stop. It can thus either convey the idea of a person on foot armed with a spear, or of stopping a spear thrust. This highlights the ambiguity of tools (and by extension, techniques) which can either take lives or preserve lives, depending on their application (2). Several modern martial arts (e.g. 3) focus on the non-violent, life-preserving possibility for martial arts techniques and knowledge.

As with other martial arts, Aikido must first and foremost provide for effective defence of the practitioner from an attacker. Aikido's higher aspiration, however, is to develop technique that can also protect that attacker from harm, if possible.

In a literal and physical sense, Aikido seeks to gently ground an attacker's violent force, and to disarm, control or immobilize them as necessary. Both mentally and physically, the practitioner is engaging with the violent engergy in a profoundly different way than what is expected or imagined possible. Physically, this means neither fighting back nor yeilding, but rather redirecting, unbalancing and grounding. Mentally, this means emotional detatchment, with a view to calmly engaging and changing the offender's perceptions and will, all the while caring for their physical self to the largest extent possible.

The Political Philosophy of Aikido

Applied on a larger scale, the concepts are also directly analagous to the philosophical and political underpinnings of nonviolent direct action. The instances of violence that Aikido's teachings endeavour to address are small-scale: personal (e.g. one-on-one, perhaps a-few-on-one) dynamics. Large-scale, institutional and structural violence, however, are related to those smaller dynamics in two ways:

1. What we call large-scale violence (e.g. war, imperialism, police state violence, or structural conditions like poverty, patriarchy, racism, homophobia, etc..) are, on the individual level, created and enforced through personal interactions. These social systems are in fact simply a collection of violent, small-group interactions, repeated over and over again.

2. The second reason large and small-scale interactions are related is that even organizations and institutions can be viewed as bodies to which many of these same principles apply or are instructive. People who move in powerful circles are frequently avid consumers of books such as Sun Tzu's The Art of War or "The 36 Secret Strategies of the Martial Arts: The Classic Chinese Guide for Success in War, Business, and Life" by Hiroshi Moriya, while "political jiu-jitsu" is now discussed and studied, in circles as varied as media organizations, political party strategists, and activist organizations (e.g. 4).

Though the ideas of guerilla warfare lack the nonviolent philosophy, the methods involved bare a resemblance: never meeting force directly with force, the deep understanding of connection to the ground (e.g. the physical terrain or -- metaphorically -- the "base" of popular support), the use of formations to extend, encircle and unbalance the opponent.

Nonviolent martial arts like Aikido put into practice ideas which are professed by organizations such as modern Police services, UN Peacekeepers and the like: to incapacitate beligerants with the minimum amount of force necessary, while protecting themselves and noncombatants. The fundamental insight is that the true opponent is insecurity (best fought with redistribution of wealth and power) and a set of hostile ideas, and that it is those that we want to change if we hope to end the conditions of violence. The ideas cannot even be engaged when people's fear of personal safety has gone beyond a certain point of existential threat. An institution engaged in organized, active nonviolence (e.g. see the Disarmy concept) would be one that intervened in crises of conflict and insecurity by providing services that addressed such a two-pronged approach:

  1. Addressing insecurity with rapid response deployment of clean water, food, shelter, communications networks, community organizing facitilites, and the like; and
  2. Direct intervention in conflict situations using the minimum amount of force, and with a view to incapacitate and disempower, rather than terrorize, hurt or kill.

There is no question that such activities would be dangerous and risky, and involve much hardship for the partipants. We are, of course, all human, and all fall short of the idealistic inspirations and lofty goals. These values and principles are rightfully set high to keep us constantly aspiring to be better. These large-scale challengese directly mirror the path of progression for individuals pursuing Aikido study: a journey filled with intense learning, philosophical growth, a certain amount of physical harship in training. A journey which sets out to achieve (nearnly impossible sounding) lofty goals, but which are achievable with hard work and study.

Excerpt from "The Nonviolent Martial Art"

by George Leonard, from Esquire, July 1983

Founder of Aikido Morihei UeshibaAikido, "the way of harmonizing with the spirit of the universe," is perhaps the most elegant and sophisticated of the martial arts. It is also the most difficult to learn, says Jearl Walker, a practitioner of Judo and Karate, in the July, 1980 Scientific American. "Its demands for skill, grace, and timing rival those of classical ballet."

In spite of these demands, Aikido is growing in popularity. Though it is a direct descendant of bushido --- "the way of the warrior" --- Aikido is a reform of the conventional martial arts. Its deeper purpose --- expressed in every technique, every movement --- is to create harmony rather than discord, reconciliation rather than victory.

Modern Aikido was founded in the late Twenties by Morihei Uyeshiba, a master of Jujitsu and sword fighting. At his death at age eighty-six in 1969, Master Uyeshiba left behind a rich mind-body-spirit art and a legend of extraordinary feats, some of which were captured on film. But he left only a few words. Among them:

"The secret of Aikido is to harmonize ourselves with the movement of the universe and bring ourselves into accord with the universe itself. He who has gained the secret of aikido has the universe in himself and can say, 'I am the universe.'"

"Aiki is not a technique to fight with or defeat the enemy. It is the way to reconcile the world and make human beings one family."

"The only opponent is within."

It is practically impossible to master Aikido without internalizing its philosophy. And it is a rather radical philosophy: To love and protect the attacker; to cooperate with rather than compete against your fellow aikidoists (contests are forbidden, but examinations are quite challenging); to transcend conventional concepts of time, space and causality; and to sense the interconnectedness of all existence.

Aikido can be practiced by people of every age but can be as demanding physically as it is philosophically. Half the time the aikidoist plays the attacker; in this role no punches are pulled and the attacker is generally thrown or pinned. The seemingly effortless quality of Aikido disguises the rigorous training involved in taking a fall safely and gracefully. This aspect of the art --- learning to transform the fear of falling into the joy of flying --- is as rewarding and valuable as is the throwing and pinning.

Since its power does not come from sheer mass or exceptional upper-body strength, Aikido is an especially good martial art for women and smaller men. Too much reliance on arm, shoulder, and chest muscles, in fact, can prevent graceful and effective performance on the mat. The startling force of the aikido throw derives from the long muscles that are attached to the pelvis. During throws, the aikidoist's arms and hands are often extended like swords. This is accomplished by sensing ki (energy) flowing through the arms and out the fingertips. Whatever the rational explanation for this mysterious phenomenon, the fact remains that it works; the Aikido "energy arm" is relaxed yet remarkably powerful. In Aikido, the mysterious and the commonplace often seem to join.

Copyright © George Leonard, Esquire, July 1983 

Excerpt from "Buddhism and War"

Shaolin monk

Taken from BBC infopage on religions (though the information applies equally well to modern, secular non-violent martial art philosophies as well), which can be found here: BBC Religions - Buddhism and War

Non-violence is at the heart of Buddhist thinking and behaviour. The first of the five precepts that all Buddhists should follow is "Avoid killing, or harming any living thing."

Buddhism is essentially a peaceful tradition. Nothing in Buddhist scripture gives any support to the use of violence as a way to resolve conflict.

In times of war

Give rise in yourself to the mind of compassion,

Helping living beings

Abandon the will to fight.

One of Buddha's sermons puts this very clearly with a powerful example that stresses the need to love your enemy no matter how cruelly he treats you:

Even if thieves carve you limb from limb with a double-handed saw, if you make your mind hostile you are not following my teaching.

Kamcupamasutta, Majjhima-Nikkaya I ~ 28-29

Figures like the Dalai Lama (who won the Nobel Peace Prize) demonstrate in word and deed Buddhism's commitment to peace.

"Hatred will not cease by hatred, but by love alone.

This is the ancient law."

Many Buddhists have refused to take up arms under any circumstances, even knowing that they would be killed as a result. The Buddhist code that governs the life of monks permits them to defend themselves, but it forbids them to kill, even in self-defence.

For Buddhist countries this poses the difficult dilemma of how to protect the rights and lives of their citizens without breaking the principle of nonviolence.

The pure Buddhist attitude is shown in this story:

A Vietnam veteran was overheard rebuking the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, about his unswerving dedication to non-violence.

"You're a fool," said the veteran - "what if someone had wiped out all the Buddhists in the world and you were the last one left. Would you not try to kill the person who was trying to kill you, and in doing so save Buddhism?!"

Thich Nhat Hanh answered patiently "It would be better to let him kill me. If there is any truth to Buddhism and the Dharma it will not disappear from the face of the earth, but will reappear when seekers of truth are ready to rediscover it.

"In killing I would be betraying and abandoning the very teachings I would be seeking to preserve. So it would be better to let him kill me and remain true to the spirit of the Dharma."

Buddhist monks have been leaders in developing various forms of martial arts. The Shaolin Order is perhaps the best known of these, famed for their fighting prowess.

Martial arts would seem to be about as far from non-violence as you can get, but Buddhist forms of martial arts have very strict rules about how violence can be used.

The Shaolin teaching forbids the monk from ever being the aggressor, and instructs him to use only the minimum necessary defensive force. By becoming skilled in physical conflict the monk has a better understanding of violence and is able to use sophisticated techniques to avoid harm, ranging from simple parrying of clumsy blows to paralysing grips and knockout blows in the face of extreme violence - but always using only the amount of force needed to refuse the violence that is being offered to them.

Most martial arts traditions have strong spiritual and philosophical elements, and insist on a responsible and minimalist attitude to violence.