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
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
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.
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. (www.northamptonkarate.com)