First, Cause Pain

Graduated use of force in martial arts is based on applying hurt before harm.

Posted Aug 26, 2017

Martial arts training is a paradox. Developing the skill to use deadly force if necessary is about never having to use it. In many traditions, schools, and systems, the onus really is on the preservation of life rather than on taking of it. This approach relies on the idea of separating hurt from harm.

Preserving lives and refraining from injuring seem to be far removed from the techniques and applications of many martial arts. But this is a popular misconception. Anyone who watched the 1970s television show Kung Fu will recall the flashbacks involving young trainee Kwai Chang Caine and his teacher, Master Kan. Kan was often shown instructing Caine on masterful martial moves while simultaneously informing him about the philosophy of martial arts.

In the 1974 Kung Fu pilot movie, Kan gives Caine the following advice:

"Perceive the way of nature and no force of man can harm you. Do not meet a wave head on: Avoid it. You do not have to stop force: It is easier to redirect it. Learn more ways to preserve rather than destroy. Avoid rather than check. Check rather than hurt. Hurt rather than maim. Maim rather than kill. For all life is precious nor can any be replaced."

The command to “hurt rather than maim” can also be thought of as “hurt rather than harm.” Although this concept is from a fictional character in a TV show, it is firmly grounded in principles found in many traditional martial arts. The introductory series of movements in a form (kata) taught in the Yuishinkai karate system developed by Grandmaster Inoue Motokatsu is one of a series called Pinan (meaning “peaceful and safe.”)

The first move of the first form, Pinan Nidan, involves a strike, not a defensive movement. The combat application of this initial technique is a striking movement to hurt the attacker's arm—to provide an opportunity to quit the fight. It is not meant to cause harm to the attacker.

The proverb taught with the form is “Itami ku ji ku,” or “pain removes fighting spirit.” Martial artist and philosopher Barry Allen in his book "Striking Beauty" wrote that “martial arts techniques are designed for compulsory compliance, destroying an opponent’s will to fight,” to achieve victory without causing serious injury or death.

The next sequence in the form repeats the opening move but adds a chasing attack to the opponent's body. The message: Try to stop the opponent with hurt, but if they don't stop, apply harm to keep yourself safe.

This concept resonates with me outside the arena of martial arts and self-defense practice. It tells me that we should work as best we can to allow others to be given some latitude to alter behaviors before we apply severe reprimand or caustic criticism.

It might be a stretch, but when I think of this, the soundtrack to my thoughts is John Lennon's "give peace a chance. In this context peace to me doesn't mean non-doing or not responding. Rather it means carefully grading a response be it written, verbal or physical.

This peace concept also fits with that kata Pinan kata series created over a hundred years ago. Peace and safety can still be achieved without direct application of maximum force or overwhelming response. "First, cause pain" is a preferred reaction to "first, cause injury."

Maybe the next time you feel the need to send an aggressive tweet, email, or verbal message, think about grading your response. Start with something that is a bit gentler and not harmful. You can always build on hurt, but you often can't come back from harm.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2017)