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Bun/Bu: Coercion and Persuasion

By Jeff Brooks

All of us, as leaders and as individuals, have two modes of action to accomplish the results we seek. As a society as well, there are two modes by which results can be obtained. One is coercion, and the other is persuasion. Both are necessary, and both require skill. Skill in each one is difficult to attain. Skill to move wisely between the two modes is much harder to achieve. But it is essential, and it is the fundamental work we have to do, in our roles as leaders, administrators, warriors, parents and individuals.

In martial arts we learn the skillful use of force. We also learn that reliance exclusively on force leads us to the opposite of what we want to attain. If we treat every life-difficulty as a use-of-force problem, we will soon go to jail or become dead. We learn equanimity in the face of difficulty and restraint in the use of the skills we are learning. Nevertheless, most of the time we spend in the training hall is dedicated to fostering the physical, mental and technical mastery needed for self-defense.

In the professional study of philosophy, the law, or rhetoric – such as in literature, journalism, politics, public administration, or scholarship – we refine our ability to solve problems through acquiring information, cultivating values, creating a heart and mind that are stable and clear, so that we can engage with others, think precisely and communicate persuasively.

In Japanese there is a phrase “Bun Bu” – written with a pair of Kanji (Chinese characters) that represent the two poles of leadership skill. A consummate leader will master both.

The kanji “Bun Bu” is posted on the wall of our dojo, written in beautiful calligraphy by Zen master and karate master Sogen Sakiyama Roshi, of Kozenji Zendo in Naha, Okinawa, Japan.

He sent the calligraphy to me, at a critical stage in my own practice, as an ideal toward which to strive. It was, for me, not a simple matter of saying, “Oh sure, I get that…”. It was not a piece of generic good advice from an older man to a younger one.

The mastery of this polarity is the fundamental challenge we face. During the course of his own lifetime he experienced the result of the failure of leaders to master it, a failure manifest in the suffering and gruesome deaths of millions.

As a parent or teacher mostly you will use patient, loving instruction to guide children. Persuading them, letting them see – by example, by logic, by reward – what is healthy and what is harmful. But if in a crisis, such as when the child chases a ball down to the road, or heads with arms out-stretched at high speed in the direction of a red-hot stove – if at that moment you are patient and try to reason and explain, then it is most likely that disaster and suffering will result.

In that case, in the moment of crisis, it is too late for education. Decisive, forceful action is required. You pull the child from harm’s way. You would be wise to use your voice forcefully then as well, to prevent a repeat when your back is turned.

Here is another example. Let’s say you are meditating for the first time. You have been instructed that the period will last for thirty minutes. For the sake of the effectiveness of your meditation and to help the other people you are practicing with, you should remain silent and still for the duration of the period. You feel pain in your legs. Itches move around your body. You think a spider or a fly must be walking on your head. Disturbing thoughts assail you. You need to make a choice. You can move. Or you can keep still. You can try to become comfortable by shifting position, destroying your own meditation practice and disturbing the peace of others, or you can tolerate the discomfort, discipline yourself, tolerate the pain, and condition yourself, gradually, to achieve deep, still, silent, peaceful, powerfully transformative meditation practice.

So what’s it going to be? The time for persuasion is before the period, when your teacher has a chance to inform you and inspire you through words and example to seek out the rewards of sincere, disciplined practice.

Once you are in the midst of the action – in the midst of the period of practice – the time for persuasion is past. Now is the time to use all the power of your body and mind to succeed.

If a meth head kicks in your door in the middle of the night and threatens you and your family and you choose to seek refuge in pacifism, allowing the psychotic to kill your family and yourself, for the sake of a few dollars, only disaster would result. To pretend that you would never raise your hand forcefully toward another human being, no matter what the circumstances, is either self-deception or a disgrace.

Cultivating a life and a world in which the causes for violence would not arise would be a worthy path of action. If in the short term we encounter violence, we need to deal with it. When we are in it, it is too late to wish we weren’t. We need to act decisively and we need to prevail.

We would be wise to cultivate the sound qualities of character in our own heart and mind – in our body, our speech and our thoughts – that will produce good relationships, and which further happiness for ourselves and others. With this understanding perhaps we can persuade others to follow a decent path instead of a path of lies, greed and murder. (Deception, greed and murder being popular lifestyle choices, recommended vocally and daily among various segments of our world’s culture.)

Too much reliance on persuasion can get us killed in a crisis. When an Islamic fascist was stabbing Dutch artist and intellectual Theo van Gogh, a few years ago, Theo cried “Please, we can talk about it!!…” as he was bleeding to death on the pavement. We can see that at a certain point in an interaction persuasion will no longer provide a satisfactory resolution.

Some go to the other extreme and rely too heavily on coercion. Fascists of the left, right and center, and their institutional sponsors, may not have the ability to educate people, nor have the respect for people that will enable them to act in their interest, or persuade them as to why certain policies may be in their interest.

These regimes will act against the interests of their own people. They rely on force. In light of the effects on human lives of this kind of regime – Soviet, the Cambodia of Pol Pot, the cartels, the totalitarian wannabes running rackets all over the world right now, making their living through intimidation, degradation, extortion, thievery, drug dealing and murder, you can appreciate the values of moderation, respect, and forbearance. Platonic virtues (Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues as well) still work today to produce happiness.

As leaders and family people – as martial artists with jobs, homes, votes, and other responsibilities – it is useful for us to understand the place in our lives of the skills we cultivate, the skills of both coercion and persuasion.

To master both, and to master the judicious use of both, is the yin and yang of living a decent life.

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About The Author:

Jeffrey Brooks, Seventh Degree Black Belt, US Shorin Ryu Karate, has been the director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton, Massachusetts since 1987 and director of Northampton Zendo since 1993. He is author of “Rhinoceros Zen – Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom.” His column Zen Mirror and other articles appear on

New! is pleased to announce its first book: “Rhinoceros Zen –Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom,” by Jeffrey Brooks, a work that portrays the dual paths and interplay between Zen and Karate-do. Fast paced and easy to read, it is full of insight and wisdom. It is a rewarding read for any martial artist.

(Softcover, 300 pages, illustrated)


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self mastery,leadership skill, leadership,Zen and the martial arts,Buddhism and the martial arts

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