November 23, 2014

Of Tigers and Men

"Sifu, what about taking a person's life? Is it ever justifiable, if so, when?"

It is in our nature to do what we need to do in order to survive.

Consider the situation: Someone, without provocation or perhaps merely as an over-reaction to what he regards as an insult or threat, approaches you, threatening your life. His intent is clear. He means to harm or even to kill. What do we have here? You and another violent person - a person who may take not only your life but the lives of others as well. We know the old martial arts' saying, “When your life is threatened right at that moment you have two choices - you can either kill or be killed." But in order to make that decision you need to consider the outcome of your actions. You know what kind of person you are. How hard you have worked to provide for yourself and your family. You know the ethical standards you have set for yourself and that you do not bully other people. In other words, people are safe around you. You have met your responsibilities. If you are killed, those whom you have protected are now alone. But what about your opponent? If he is truly the violent type, for whom does he provide? Who is free from his violent nature? At that moment of decision you have to react with a correct evaluation of the relative values of yourself and your opponent. This is a very difficult choice to make and in order to make it you must have a strong sense of Buddhist ethics.

We know that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is a law in physics. But it applies also to the martial arts. If a man strikes you with his fist, you may not respond by throwing a hand grenade at him. If you are of more or less equal strength, you strike him back with your fist. If he is clearly more powerful than you, you may use additional force - a weapon, perhaps, to defend yourself. But your actions are still limited to being defensive. If you disable your opponent and he lies on the ground at your feet, you cannot decide to kill him in self-defense.

Sometimes you may find yourself attacked with a fist and when you accordingly defend yourself, your opponent pulls a knife or a gun. He changes the rules on you. Now, you think, there are no rules. It is a fight that may have to proceed to the death of one of you. This is where your martial arts skill comes in. You had better know your stuff.

But still your actions are governed by Buddhist ethics. And you must always be on guard against yourself just as you are on guard against possible opponents.

A long time ago I was attracted to the Tiger Claw Style Kung Fu. The fierceness of it appealed to me. I knew how dangerous this style could be, but like most practitioners, I got attached to the viciousness of it. And I became vicious myself. At this time back in High School there was a kid who was at least five inches taller than I and about 40-50 pounds heavier who had been goading and baiting me all semester. He wanted to "play fight" in school. I told him no way. I didn't want to risk injury to myself for an exercise in vanity. And I didn't want to invite the law in for such foolishness. I also told him that he had to realize that if he truly threatened me, I would most likely end up hurting him. For many reasons I didn't want to fight him, not there and not without a genuine cause. I thought I was very secure in myself, in my own self-control. But when the chips were down, I wasn't. He laughed at me and then shoved me a few times. It was just a push on the shoulder. I pivoted and let his hand glance off me. I told myself that I should just walk away. But I didn't move. He laughed at me and continued to shove me. I neutralized the strike by turning, but then I countered. I hit him hard and he reacted nervously, getting his hands much too close to my face. Suddenly I went into a reflex-action mode. The Enemy Shadow archetype went wild inside my head. Things happened so fast. “Wham!” I executed the "Tiger Pounces” and got his arms tangled and locked. With one hand I held him and with the other, using an "Eagle Claw" I grabbed his windpipe. My thumb was positioned to dig into the side of his “Adams apple” when I saw fear in his eyes and it brought me to my senses. I could hardly believe what had just taken place. I stood outside myself and looked at myself for a moment. He had wanted to 'play fight' and I was ready to kill him. I had truly had his life in my hands. And what about my own? How could I justify what I had done if I had killed him or critically injured him? I had completely lost control of myself. That was probably one of the scariest moments of my life.

I did a lot of soul-searching after that and came to understand the importance of Chan training in the martial arts.

Since that day my work on 'taming the tiger' has been long and fruitful. My attitude towards and use of the martial arts radically altered. The Chan regimen requires that we cultivate awareness of ourselves. Chan keeps our Tigers in check.

In China during the 1830"s there was a martial arts' Grand Master named Choy Fok. This master was also a Chan Buddhist Monk, and in his old age he decided that he wouldn't accept Wu Kung Fu (Martial Kung Fu) students less they first learned Chan Buddhism. On one occasion, Chan Heung, who had already mastered another Wu Kung Fu style, paid his respects to old Grand Master Choy and asked him to give him instruction in his martial arts style. Grand Master Coy refused saying that he was not interested in taking any new martial arts students. Chan Heung begged and begged and finally Grand Master Choy accepted him - but only as a Buddhist disciple! Chan Heung worked very hard and diligently in his Chan practice. But did he acquire the necessary humility and self-control? Grand Master Choy needed to know. And so he waited until one morning he saw Chan Heung practicing his Wu Kung Fu style. Then he went up to him and openly mocked him. Chan Heung was surprised. He had not expected to be so tormented especially by someone who professed to be such a good Buddhist. Many tigers raced through his mind demanding that he take action. But he calmed them all. He ignored insults. He calmly turned to let blows glance off him. He withstood all the attacks that he could peaceably withstand. He was not hurt and therefore had no reason to inflict injury. He walked away without realizing that Grand Master Choy had just tested him and that he had passed the test. This was the start of Chan Heung's lessons. He was a brilliant student and founded the martial arts discipline "Choy Li Fut," a well-respected Chan Quan (Zen Fist) style, which he named in honor of his master.

It is our religious discipline that enables us to treat life and all things as sacred. This is the foundation of our martial arts training. We all get scared and confused, but when we are Chan practitioners who are scared and confused, we can still rely on that foundation to support us. We don't lose self-control. We don't act on evil impulses.