Knowledge, Victory, and Empathy

Posted on: Mon, 08/14/2017 - 00:19 By: Tom Swiss

There is very old advice in the martial arts, already commonplace wisdom in the days of Sun Tzu, to know yourself and know your opponent:

Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. - The Art of War, L. Giles trans., III:18

To succeed in a fight or a battle or any challenge, you have to know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. You can't develop a strategy that lets you bring your strengths to bear if you don't know what those strengths are. If you don't know your weaknesses, you can't keep your opponent from exploiting them.

And vice versa: you want to exploit your opponent's weaknesses and avoid their strengths. As I've said before, don't fight their fight.

But it's interesting that one of the best ways to understand ourselves is to understand others, and one of the best ways to understand others is to look inside ourselves. Each gives us a useful perspective on the other.

Because we're all human. Even our enemies.

Very often when a country goes to war, its leaders try to dehumanize the other side. They tell everybody, "that other tribe is not like us at all!' But it's not uncommon that many years after a war, soldiers from opposite sides will meet and find out that their experiences had a lot in common. Sometimes they'll even become friends, these people who were once shooting at each other. They see that the soldiers they were fighting were in the same situation they were, hungry and tired and trying to take care of their buddies, that they had more in common with the soldiers on the other side than with the people back home who sent them to fight.

In a much smaller way, you see that when two people have a good sparring or competition match. One of our champion fighters from New York, Jun Shihan David, once told me that if you don't like the other guy better after your match, it was a waste.

You might think you have to get angry, hate your opponent. But if you do that, you can't understand them. You're stuck inside your own head.

You have to get into your opponent's head. So to be a good fighter, you actually have to have empathy.

And that's interesting! Because if you have empathy, if you understand your opponent, then maybe you don't have to fight. Maybe you can find another way. In a way, love and respect and being obedient to the needs of others aren't just a matter for our family and friends, they are for our opponents too.

Now, it doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes you still need a good gyaku tsuki. But one of my favorite true martial arts stories makes this point about empathy very clearly.

Terry Dobson was one of the first Westerners to study aikido in Japan, a direct student of Morihei Ueshiba. He wrote how after a few years of training, he "felt both tough and holy" and "wanted an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby [he] might save the innocent by destroying the guilty." (I understand exactly what he meant. If you train in the budo for long enough I think you will too.)

One day in the early 1960s, he was riding on a commuter train outside Tokyo, when a filthy and rude drunk boarded the train and started harassing and assaulting people. Dobson thought he finally had his chance for a righteous fight! He was just about to engage when an elderly man got the drunk's attention and started talking to him.

The old man continued to beam at the laborer. "What’cha been drinkin’?" he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest. "I been drinkin’ sake," the laborer bellowed back, "and it’s none of your business!" Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.

"Oh, that’s wonderful," the old man said, "absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake too. Every night, me and my wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree has done better than I expected though, especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It is gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening – even when it rains!" He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling.

As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. "Yeah," he said, "I love persimmons too…" His voice trailed off.

"Yes," said the old man, smiling. "And I’m sure you have a wonderful wife."

"No," replied the laborer. "My wife died." Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. "I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, I don’t got no job. I’m so ashamed of myself." Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of despair rippled through his body.

Now it was my turn. Standing there in my well- scrubbed youthful innocence, my "make this world safe for democracy" righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.

Then the train arrived at my stop. As the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. "My, my," he said. "That is a difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it."

I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly stroking the filthy, matted hair.

As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words. I had just seen aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it was love.


This was the topic of my meditation talk on August 3. Before I had finished writing it up, we saw the shocking events in Charlottesville on August 12, the murder and assaults around the "Unite the Right" demonstration by white nationalists. Our righteous anger rises; perhaps we look for, as Dobson put it, "an opportunity whereby [we] might save the innocent by destroying the guilty." (It seems that some of the extreme "antifa" counter-protesters were motivated by this thought.)

Certainly if violence breaks out, it is our duty to use whatever means available and necessary to protect the innocent. But the best way -- the only way -- to stop this awful ideology is to make sure that it can make no new converts. We must find our empathy for those people who are on the edge of falling into race hatred.

This is not some feel-good hippy-dippy impractical ideal. It's very very hard. But it is the only effective way to fight evil.

(Image: by Sean MacEntee CC-BY-2.0)

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