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The Duty of the Martial Artist

By Jeff Brooks

To a warrior, “duty” is essential. A warrior’s skill, power and life itself have no meaning or purpose unless the sense of duty is clear, and we act in accord with it. For those serving in the military or in law enforcement, this principle can and should form the foundation of everything we do. That is as true now as it was in feudal Japan or any other militarized moment in human history, as far back as we can know.

Without a sense of duty above and beyond individual interests, we may become nothing but gangsters, living the narrow, fearful, vengeful, poisonous, degraded life to which gangsters condemn themselves.

Civilian martial artists have choices to make.

Some can practice martial arts for the sake of vanity. They take a narcissistic path on which they focus only on themselves – their body, their skills, their rank, their relation to others in their hierarchy.

Others practice martial arts like thugs. Getting power to dominate and intimidate others, as in the martial arts practice of the 9/11 bombers and other murderers.

It is possible to practice martial arts for the sake of improved fitness and health. To practice in search of some “deeper dimension” of experience in physical activity (even if that deeper dimension remains nebulous at first). And to do so in the company of other people, sharing challenges and experiences, creating a community of fellow practitioners. But this still is an individual pursuit in the sense that it is not one based on duty. In my observation, it is one that will not be sustained long enough, or intensely enough, to go very deep.

And this is not the limit of the possibilities of the practice of civilian or “individual” martial arts.

Here is a warning: we sincere practitioners should not allow ourselves to be distracted by the rampant trivialization of martial arts – either the mocking portrayal in popular culture, or in its crude presentation in some martial arts schools.

The fact that the reputation of martial arts has been degraded by phony masters, ranks-for-sale, and pretentious dimwits who never took the time or trouble to develop themselves as practitioners before selling themselves as “great” or “important” does not need to trouble us too much. To paraphrase scripture: The dopes will always be with us.

Don’t be one and you’ll be okay.

Then you will be free to practice sincerely without concern for the reputation of other people, or how other people see you. If you know that others are getting undeserved recognition when you or your sincere friends and teachers are not getting as much then I would recommend not troubling yourself too much about it.

It is better to be accomplished than to be well-known. In our decadent society greatness is not always recognized or rewarded. Be quiet and humble and practice deeply.

Which is why the sense of duty is so important – as important for individual practitioners of martial arts as it is for those in police or military service.

If you are practicing so that you can defend your precious life from harm: good. If you are motivated to make yourself strong and sharp so you can take care of the people who depend on you – family, friends, neighbors, innocent strangers everywhere: that motivation itself will be a great source of personal power and inspiration for your practice.

If you are training in order to stay healthy, to make the most of your life, to be of use to others as much and as long as you can, you will always have a mind open to fresh technical possibilities and the energy for a fruitful, useful, satisfying practice.

If you are training to be appreciated, recognized as someone who is extra-cool and better than others, you will always feel under-appreciated, resentful and have a practice that is unsatisfying – no matter how famous you become.

I would also mention that to be sincere and humble and strong and useful is only the foundation. We can take our martial arts practice as far as we want. There is no limit imposed on our practice or on how great we can become through it except by the limits we impose upon ourselves.

But we must go step by step, leaping over nothing on the way to our goal, no matter how high our aspiration. Having as a motivation the profound desire to save all beings from suffering is a very high motivation. But understand, we have to do what we must do to manifest that motivation. Just to say we have it, or want to have it, will not help much. There is no point in using martial arts to achieve enlightenment unless you can throw a punch. Unless you can help your teacher, your fellow practitioners, your students, do what they need to do today. Teach them. Learn from them. Work with them. Sweep the floor. Pay the bills. Train consistently and sincerely. Fear nothing: not your opponent, not your limits, not old age, not death.

That is your duty as an individual martial artist. That is the calling that, if you make it yours, will focus your practice and make it utterly meaningful, for a lifetime and perhaps, beyond.

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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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Zen and the martial arts, martial arts, martial arts philosophy

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