Non-violence through violence?

As we approach our first session on 31st October – with lots of interest, which makes me really pleased! – I’ve had the opportunity to think about some of the things that often come up when I talk to others about martial arts. Plenty of people I’ve met have found the idea of doing martial arts weird, saying “All that punching, kicking, and twisting stuff, why would you want to do something so violent?“. My response, “Well, it’s not really violent,” can get just as much bemusement. And there is an initial oddness to it, but it’s a basic part of Shorinji Kempo that it’s intended to be non-violent. Two of what we call the six distinguishing characteristics of Shorinji Kempo are shushu koju, roughly ‘defence is primary’, and the principle fusatsu katsujin, which can be understood as ‘do not harm others’. Don’t ask me how accurate these are as translations.

How do you practise a martial art that claims to be non-violent, then? Well, there’s a broader and a narrower sense of ‘violence’. In the broader sense, many things are violent – the things we do in training, but also most sports, vigorous exercise… even braking hard can be described as violent. We’re dealing with actions that can be high impact, and learning how to respond to dangerous situations, so we have to simulate that. But in the narrower sense what we do is not violent. When someone snatches their child out of the road to save them from being hit by a car, or when a footballer executes an inch-perfect tackle, we don’t think of either as violent in a negative sense, even if injury results to the other person (though this depends on the extent of that injury, and of course in Kempo we do all we can to avoid injuring each other!). What’s missing in these cases is the intention to harm, and that’s all-important – when we train in Kempo we’re being non-violent in the more narrow sense because our intention is not to harm. When training with a partner the first concern is for them, and we only perform the actions we perform because our partner wants us to help them learn something. What we’re aiming to learn is how to minimise violence – if all goes well the skills acquired, if applied conscientiously, can end a conflict with less harm than would otherwise be seen, or even better, confidence in one’s abilities can stop a conflict before it escalates to violence at all.

That said, it would be naive to suppose that what we learn is likely to be a serene example of conflict resolution if used in practice. For many (if not most) of us, the day we face potential violence is one of the worst of our lives, and when a conflict actually breaks out, it’s messy, scary, and instincts kick in. That’s one of the reasons we want to learn greater control, to ensure that in that situation no one will come out with the sort of injuries that will change their life. I will defend myself in whatever way I find necessary, but I’d rather not take on the burden of doing something irreparable to someone else to do so. That’s why we, unlike many martial arts, don’t practise such things as arm breaks – practice becomes second nature, and when put under pressure we don’t want our habitual actions to be those designed to seriously, potentially permanently, harm someone. Such things are last resorts, or unfortunate consequences, not the goal.

So in short, if you do it right, training in violence (in the broader sense) can help you to practise non-violence (in the narrower sense).

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