Practitioners of traditional Okinawan martial arts protect some of the most visible public figures in the world. This is not well-known. Most of the people who do this work don’t talk much about it.
It is useful to know – because the reciprocation between dojo life and practical application is the foundation of traditional karate. Deep skills are cultivated in the dojo. Those skills are tested and refined in the unpredictable stresses of the real world. Combining the depth of cultivation in the dojo with the insights and intensity of operational experience, dojo life is infused with vitality. That reciprocation is how our tradition was created over the centuries. Not every practitioner needs operational experience to benefit from it. It can be shared – in the curriculum, spirit and methods of dojo training.
The practical relevance of Okinawan karate is useful to know because the training methods we use – including solo kata and contact conditioning – can be exported to any hotel room, hallway, backstage, parking garage, airstrip – anywhere we may be.
Many martial artists and professional warriors have deep spiritual lives, whatever their religious tradition may be. The skill, purpose and courage that come from both physical and spiritual training are what we use to protect the people we are responsible for – our family, ourselves, or someone else.
For some uniting martial skill with inner training is natural.
One protectee who vividly demonstrates the link between martial and spiritual power is the Dalai Lama of Tibet.
When he travels around the world the Dalai Lama travels as a visiting head of state, and so receives a high level of security. When he is in the United States, the Department of State and other agencies coordinate to provide protection for him, in tandem with his security detail.
Why would he need all that? Some find this surprising, not credible, or an unnecessary expedient, an accommodation to the crude conventions of government power, which cannot comprehend kindness, or how it works.
Many, not only religious people, say that when they hear him speak they feel as if he is speaking directly to them. They say this even when they are in an arena that holds 50,000 people.
People say that in his presence their fear and anger, melt. In place of these negative feelings they feel calm and warmth.
Millions of people buy the Dalai Lama’s books, see and hear his talks and ceremonies, or follow him online. He inspires them.
He is among the most revered figures in the world.
In some quarters he is reviled. To some he is a trouble-maker, an enemy. In south and central Asia these conflicts have turned violent. This is not new.
From long before the invasion of India in the 11th century, which extinguished Buddhism in its home land, to the bombing of the monumental statues carved into the mountain cliffs at Bamiyan, Afghanistan 1500 years ago, the Dalai Lama’s tradition has encountered violence. It demonstrates impermanence. It demonstrates resilience.
Observing the Dalai Lama in action, you see no fear. His openness and his confidence are as much an example of his courage as his famous journey into exile, through the snows of Tibet through the Himalayas, to India.
His sense of duty and the clarity of his mission govern his public actions. He seems to connect with everyone he meets.
Yet he does not take his safety for granted. He does not presume that because he is good that no harm will come to him.
He is continually protected. Among his retinue of attendants and translators, monks and managers is a contingent of professional warriors, who risk their lives to defend his.
In 1959, when China invaded Tibet, the Dalai Lama’s escape was managed by the US intelligence community. It was a clandestine paramilitary operation.
Some would say that the success of that venture was the result of the good karma the Dalai Lama created in the past. Still, the results of those past good deeds manifested in the form of strong, skilled, courageous, armed warriors who extracted him from occupied Tibet, under fire.
They protected the Dalai Lama and preserved his life. Those modern warriors helped make possible the worldwide dissemination of an incomparable philosophy of freedom, as well as the regeneration of Tibetan culture in India and the West.
This global dissemination of a once-local culture, as a result of terrible pressure and destruction, has parallels with the dissemination and propagation of Ryukyuan martial culture that followed the destruction of the Okinawan land and people in the first half of the 20th century.
Survivors of Okinawa’s devastation, our teachers, revived their culture, teaching the arts and practices they inherited, sharing them around the world, keeping them relevant and alive.
They did not just preserve their cultural treasure, they put it to work.
This was the attitude of the Tibetans as well. The lesson from cultures in crisis applies to all of us: we need to take care of what is precious. We cannot just get another one. Our lives are precious. Our families are precious. Our friends, teachers, students, communities, our country, the world… draw the boundary where you want to, but we need to take care of what matters.
If we train our body and mind but neglect our motives and mission we degrade the quality of our lives. As martial artists we need to consider: To what purpose do I put my skill?
To carry water from a well we need a vessel. To fulfill our inner life we need a physical world. To convey knowledge and use it we need a good teacher, a dojo, fellow practitioners, a living art and people who take care of one another.
We need a healthy body, good relationships, love, work and purpose. We need to preserve the forms of things so their content can be preserved and put to use where it is needed.
That is how kata work. That is how a dojo and a class schedule work. That is how a ryu works.
The Dalai Lama’s message of peace may be limitless, but it is conveyed to us by his tangible presence in the world; his language and action; his visits to people. As he travels he is protected.
We are all in a position to take care of people.
As martial artists we can help them grow in strength and skill, guide them to refine their character and deepen their wisdom; we can help them prepare to face life and death; to understand honor, duty and virtue; help them learn how to use every moment as the moment of freedom.
The Dalai Lama does not have the same job as the people who protect him. But they work together.
The tension between vigorous defense and the ideals of a peaceful life is not new. It is the story of raiders and settlers. Of the immune system, the commons, the castle and the law. It is a tension that people through religion, politics and science, have tried to frame and to resolve. It is the tension between what we want and what we have.
It’s application is not limited to the material world. It is not limited to special cases. We live in its presence.
We may sentimentalize it, ignore it, or hope for the best, but we cannot wish it away. It is a great theme of the history of the world. It is present in all of our lives. It appears as a paradox to every generation, nation, culture, religion, king and family. It is the theme of the Odyssey and of Hamlet, of great stories of every age, in every land. from The Mahabharata to the Gospels to War and Peace, from the Seven Samurai, to The Magnificent Seven. The great age of American film was great because it treated this seriously. For a hundred years people have used the tools of culture to make sense of this – from the noir detective stories to gangster movies to depictions of World War II. Western movies: The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider spoke to generations of people who felt this tension in their own lives, to consider this and understand their role in it.
Peaceful people need protection. They get it. Once they feel safe the protectors are no longer welcome. They are a reminder of danger. They are a reminder that they rose to meet it when others did not. In times of peace they have no place. They make people feel uncomfortable. They are bad karma, people say.
We are all responsible for others. There is no shortage of people who need us. It is an honor – it elevates the quality of our own life when we take care of people who need us and, even if they never know, protect them from harm.
The martial and the spiritual live together in each of us.
Post by Jeff Brooks
Photo by the Tibetan Photo Project