“Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.”
I felt this quote by legendary samurai and martial artist Musashi fit perfectly at the center of the topic I am going to write about. It is a topic that can lead to a lot of branching paths and may not have a very simple answer. The topic is the difference between a martial artist and a fighter. Is there even one? A recent conversation lead me to thinking on this and trying to examine my own thoughts around the subject.
I believe there is a difference between the two, however there is some mutuality. Not every fighter is a martial artist, but I think every martial artist has some degree of “fighter” in them. There are admirable qualities in both, and many martial artists have found a healthy relationship with fighting, being a “fighter” and the things that can surround that.
Let me tell you a short story about a situation I have encountered more than a handful of times as a martial arts instructor. A student and/or their parent would come to me after class and they would want to know how to handle being bullied in school. The standard protocol would be said with all the enthusiasm of a store clerk, often received very lukewarm because the kid and parents have gone through that checklist. Tell the teachers; tell the principal; tell the bus driver; tell the parents of the offending children.
And this is where the irony comes forward, the contradiction. I must confess I am no great sensei. I am not a Funkoshi, Ueshiba, Kano. My fighting skills are mediocre at best. What I DO feel I have is some very real experience dealing with an opponent most neglect to address: reality. I relay to the student and parent that as unfortunate as it is, and I don’t say that lightly, but sometimes we have to fight. Never look for it. Run from it in fact. Exhaust every single option before you do it. But sometimes it may be the best answer, sadly.
Which brings to light another quote from Musashi:
“Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things. “
We must ask ourselves often what the consequences are of both action AND inaction. My real world experience lacked this when I was younger. I saw only the pacifism and it lead me to take many awful beatings and humiliating situations over the course of my developmental years. I still have the physical and mental scars from this. I worked through that checklist I go through first and what happened was exactly what happens to a lot of these kids still: the abuse continued and often escalated.
What I also found was that a very well timed and placed punch stopped instantly what teachers, administrators and police could not stop in 5 years. This is my experience, and it is an experience that I am sad to say I have seen too often repeated around me.
As a martial arts instructor it is extremely hard to look in the eyes of youth, or even adults and tell them honestly that “if you fight, you lose.” and then turn around and say that there may come a situation where you have no other way forward but to fight.
So how does this factor in to the original question? Maybe that the martial artist should do every single thing to avoid conflict. They should hone their skills and hopefully grow to feel empowered but also understand the responsibility that comes with their power. They perhaps should grow toward working to keep their own ego in check, and mitigate their own toxic behaviors. When we accept that the only opponent we really need to fight is ourselves, it becomes less and less appealing to prove to others around you.
Martial artists will know how to fight when they need to, and things like competition may be very valuable in honing their skills of both physical and mental variety. Competition, tournaments and the like can teach us some very humbling lessons that we may not learn otherwise. They should strive for and hopefully find glory in the failures even more so than the successes. Yes, winning gold medals and being dominant in something can feel extremely good and provide a person with confidence. However, that type of glory can be as seductive as narcotics and lead people to “chase the dragon.”
We as humans are limited at the very least by time. We may be the best fighter, best boxer, best jiu-jitsu competitor, now but there is somebody coming up who will be greater than we are. Maybe their skill is better, their will harder, or maybe they are just younger and have that slightly quicker step than our aging selves. Does this imply we should not do anything competitive in nature the older we get, or just because we are guaranteed to eventually get beat? Hardly. There are still good reasons to engage in these exercises WITH A HEALTHY MENTALITY AROUND THEM.
In jiu-jitsu (and every martial art) we can find metaphors for life, and rarely if ever will I be able to use this pun again: the guard changes. Watch a few BJJ matches or training sessions and you will see how often that is proven on the microcosmic level between two people.
The person addicted to the glory of winning, the big stage that may come with winning, they will often have a difficult time as their twilight begins to remove them from their glory days. They often go on to damage themselves and sometimes others. Their talent will be unmistakable, and surely what they did to achieve such levels commands respect, but have they asked themselves what the cost is? What they have sacrificed, or are willing to sacrifice for it?
Maybe the old virtues of the Bushido should be given some merit, and rather than be a fighter become a martial artist that accepts the change of the guard and understand it is not a threat to them. Maybe they should seek to aid the next wave of students to be stronger, better, and more capable.
A gold medal or trophy will collect dust on a wall or mantle, but when a student you gave something powerful to comes back years later, and they tell you how it permanently altered their life for the better, the meaning of Musashi’s words become more clear.
“Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.”
It is hard to conceive a greater way of thinking deeply of the world than by helping to lead it to somewhere with a little less darkness, and a few more beams of light.
Written by Lake Effect Martial Arts student and lifelong Martial Artist Don LeBlanc