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The Zen Mirror
President John Adams on "No First Attack"

By Jeff Brooks

In "John Adams" by David McCullough, a biography of the second president of the United States, we get a look at Adams' life as he followed many paths - as lawyer, farmer, scholar, revolutionary, orator, member of the First Continental Congress and eventually President. John Adams lived in a world where war and the threat of war was a fact of life. His way of dealing with martial conflict 200 years ago has lessons relevant to us, as 21st century martial artists.

In this book McCullough writes:

One evening, watching his granddaughters Susanna and Abigail blowing soap bubbles with one of his clay pipes, Adams wondered about the "allegorical lesson" of the scene:

Adams wrote: "They fill the air of the room with their bubbles, their air balloons, which roll and shine reflecting the light of the fire and candles, and which are very beautiful. There can be no more perfect emblem of the physical and political and theological scenes of human life. Morality only is eternal. All the rest is balloon and bubble from the cradle to the grave."

Adams, as a former power broker now an old man, reflected on the impermanence of the phenomena of life. When we practice the martial arts, even as we prepare for conflict, or prepare ourselves to face the demands of ordinary life, we ought not wait till our old age to reflect on what it is that will really last. We ought to ask, “What will really affect the quality of our own lives and the lives of the people we touch?” I can say that from my point of view, and from the point of view of John Adams, it is not our accumulation of power itself, our ranks, titles, trophies or knowledge. Rather the quality of the strength, determination, care, kindness, focus, self-mastery, self-discipline and decency that we embody and pass on to those we teach and practice with. If our influence in these matters is good, it will outlast us and all those who will ever know us, perhaps for generations.

For John Adams this was not a matter of abstract philosophy. He was deeply concerned with self-defense during his Presidency. The political principle he followed on a national level reminded me of the principle of "karate ni sente nashi" (There is no first attack in karate) which we follow in karate-do.

During his presidency John Adams' position on national defense was opposed from both sides of the political spectrum. Of the two parties who opposed him, one group advocated heavy spending on national defense and going to war as soon as possible. The other party opposed investing in defense and opposed going to war. Adams had experienced the American Revolution first hand, and knew what fighting meant. He believed that, under the circumstances, weakness made attack inevitable. He supported a strong national defense while vigorously striving to avoid war. But Adams prevailed in his position and was vindicated.

This is a good demonstration of the principle, familiar to many practitioners of traditional Okinawan karate, of "no first attack" -- while training consistently and diligently. "No first attack" is not a matter of pacifism or passivity. It is a practice of martial strategy and morality at once.

It seems clear that at age 90 John Adams' insight into the impermanence of things and the endurance of virtue was possible because of the way he lived his life. He had been vigorous. His mind was now peaceful. At the end of his life he was not nursing grudges, fearing his waning strength, or seeking his place in history. He could see what mattered and what was trivial. He had been courageous and strong. His mind was clear. He could see what would last and what would pass away.

His ability to obtain this degree of clarity and insight itself was a result of the way he lived. It is difficult for us to see the way in which our actions, of body, speech and mind, (the technical term, from Sanskrit, is our "karma") influence the quality of our understanding. But if we look closely we can see that our minds condition our choices, condition the quality of our lives and form the impact we have on others.

This is why it is useful to understand the somatic (physical) foundation of mind training in karate. The idea of "mind training" in karate involves a much broader concept of mind than that usually found in the west, where mind and body are often divided from each other. Understanding the somatic foundation of mind training in karate helps to explain the relationship between the way our physical training conditions our minds, and the way this impacts the way we make strategic decisions in conflict situations and otherwise. It offers insight into the importance of the "No first attack" principle.

When we use the word "mind" we may be referring to widely differing mental functions. Those relevant to "mind training" in karate include: proprioception (the feedback loop between our senses, mind and muscles), sensation, categorization, concept formation, cognition, calculation, reflection, perception, discrimination, awareness, understanding, emotion, apperception (our awareness of our own mental activity), mental stability, clarity, sense of self, philosophical orientation, knowledge, will, intention, mind-beyond-thought and insight into reality... and all often lumped together in the one term "mind."

All of these aspects of mind have a physical foundation, and all are susceptible to positive change through the skillful use of the body. This is only logical since in reality the body is not separate from the mind. They are integrated - they act as a whole.

Thus, in the practice of martial arts neither the "search for knowledge" nor mechanical repetition of movements will suffice to make your defensive skills effective, or your development as a human being very deep.

In karate practice we have to know what we are after, acquire the means that will take us forward, and go. We must be patient and consistent in our application of effort. We must continually be scrupulous in examining our motivation, our methods and the results we are achieving. We must refuse to be sidetracked, intimidated or encumbered. Then we can hope to finish our work before our time runs out. This is mind training as well as physical training.

With this high degree of tenacity and attention we will discover the purpose of karate. Then we can use it with the urgency our circumstances demand - in strategic approach, like Adams' or our own "no first attack" doctrine.

If the purpose of martial arts training was mainly to kill, you could skip the work and get some TNT. If it was mainly to be safe, you could get a bunker and a Kevlar suit. If it was primarily to keep alive the art the Okinawans practiced centuries ago, we would carry knives in our sashes and face Javanese pirates in the Straights of Malucca standing on the rails of our ships.

On a national level John Adams' thoughts about national defense were right for his time. On a personal level proficiency in self-defense helps us to fulfill our obligations to ourselves, our families and our communities. Freeing ourselves and others from fear, from suffering and from death is a great obligation, an urgent and difficult task. It requires us to put our bodies and minds under cultivation, and to practice to the limit of our capacity. It requires us to transform our ordinary body and mind into something profoundly and completely human. And we do not have the luxury of time. We have been handed the tools. Sometimes they seem mundane. Sometimes they seem so exalted as to be out of reach. But we have them, as practitioners. Let's use them well.

Each stage is important. None can be skipped. (a) Get strong, flexible and healthy. (b) Regulate your body and breath. (c) Stabilize and clarify your mind. (d) Build generous relationships. (e) Serve the people who need you. (f) Be an expert in self-defense. Then you will be fearless. Then you can know what self you are defending. Then you can know how best to defend it. Then you can put your kindness and strength to good use. Then you can be strong without being militaristic, and peaceful without being passive.

By the way, like a strong, peaceful President, or many a serious practitioner, it may happen that you will not be appreciated fully for your sacrifices and good qualities. It will happen that people will stand in your way and create difficulties for you. You may feel alone. If you are provoked to anger, don't get angry. Just persevere in doing what is right. Then at the end of the day, at the end of life, you will see that what you have done is good and will last.

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About the author:

Jeffrey M. Brooks holds a Go Dan Fifth Degree Black Belt in Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, training in Okinawa, Japan and the USA, with Shoshin Nagamine, the founder of the style, Takayoshi Nagamine, his successor, as well as with numerous others in the Matsubayashi Ryu lineage and related Chinese traditions. His Buddhist study and practice is with Rev. Issho Fujita, resident director of Valley Zendo and Geshe Michael Roach of the Asian Classics Institute. He has an M.F.A. from NYU Film School and works as a speechwriter for public figures. He is founder and director of Northampton Karate and Northampton Zendo in Northampton, Massachusetts, offering classes daily for adults and children since 1988. (

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

do, martial arts training, martial arts philosophy, no first attack in karate, karate ni sente nashi

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