Practitioners of traditional Okinawan martial arts protect some of the most visible public figures in the world. This is not well-known because 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 heat of operation. Combining the depth of cultivation in the dojo with the insight and intensity of what we have learned outside, our dojo life is infused with vitality. That reciprocation is how our tradition was created over the centuries.
It 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 in the world 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 of us uniting martial skill with inner training is natural.
One protectee who vividly demonstrates the intimate union of 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 an extremely high level of security. When he is in the United States for example, the US Department of State and other federal, state and local agencies coordinate to provide protection for him, in tandem with his security detail.
Why would he need all that? He is nice.
Many people, 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, feelings they have grown accustomed to, melt. In place of these negative feelings arises a sense of 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.
But still, in some quarters he is reviled. To some he is a trouble-maker, an enemy. Someone trespassing on their authority. In south and central Asia the conflicts have turned violent. From the invasion of India in the 11th century which extinguished Buddhism in its home land, to the bombing of the 125 foot tall statues carved into the mountain cliffs at Bamiyan, Afghanistan 1500 years ago, his tradition demonstrates impermanence. It also demonstrates resilience.
Observing the Dalai Lama in action, you can see his fearlessness. His openness, certainty and vulnerability 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 put their lives on the line and defend his life, without hesitation.
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 infinite 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 exquisite classical philosophy of freedom and 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, is like the flowering 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.
We need to take care of what is precious. We cannot replace it.
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.
To what purpose will we put the skill we have?
Like carrying water in a desert, we need a vessel to contain what is precious.
We need a physical world. A good teacher, a dojo, fellow practitioners, an authentic 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, moved to where it is needed, and used.
So that their purpose, and ours, will be fulfilled.
That is how kata work. That is how a class schedule works. 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 and places throughout the world. As he travels he is protected.
We are all in a position to take care of people.
As martial artists and instructors 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 see the reason for suffering and what to do about it; 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 he needs them as they need him. We do not all provide protective services as a career. But we all can provide them: there is no shortage of people who need us.
It elevates the quality of our own life when we have a chance to take care of someone and protect them from harm. It is an honor.
The martial and the spiritual flourish together.
Post by Jeffrey Brooks
Top Photo – The Tibetan Photo Project
Dalai Lama photo – Glenn Cunningham
Sakiyama photos – please advise for credits
Ken Zen Ichi Nyo photo – Jeff Brooks