on bullshit, the Buddha, bushido, and women

Posted on: Wed, 09/25/2013 - 23:28 By: Tom Swiss

Two interesting questions about the martial way have come over the transom lately, and I thought it might be useful to try to address them here.

First, a fellow who attended one of my self-defense classes inquires, "How can I wear the 'won't take no bullshit' face while NOT wearing the 'won't take any kindness' face?"

A little background: when I teach self-defense, I use the "Five Fingers of Self-defense" model, which includes using verbal and non-verbal communication skills to deter an attack or de-escalate a confrontation. The "won't take no bullshit" face can be part of that, using body language to set boundaries. And that's critical: self-defense begins with setting boundaries and then communicating them.

But on the other hand, the phrase "won't take no bullshit" puts me in mind of a story about the Buddha. Supposedly, a Brahmin detractor came up to the big B and unloaded on him, insulting him and cursing him. (We sometimes tend to have a mental image of a smiley happy-go-lucky yoga teacher Buddha, so it's worth noting that his teaching was such a deep challenge to the power structure that (according to the sutras, at least) three attempts were made to assassinate him. This was not the only Brahmin that Sidhartha pissed off.)

Rather than yelling back (as I'd probably do), the Buddha's response was more subtle. He asked whether his detractor ever received guests and offered them gifts of food; being an upper class sort of guy, the Brahmin was proud (as I read it) to boast of his hospitality.

And if, the Buddha asked, your guests don't accept those gifts of food, to whom do they belong?

Why, they belong to me, the Brahmin answered.

And in the same way, said the Buddha, I don't accept your insults. They're all yours.

So if someone tries to give us bullshit, we don't have to take it. We don't have to give them anger back. We don't have to give them anything back. We can just decline to pick up their bullshit the first place. The "won't take no bullshit" face can be as serene as the Buddha saying "thank you, but no".

Now, few of us are Buddhas (well, we're all Buddhas inside and underneath it all...perhaps we should say instead that few us of consistently manifest our Buddha-hood moment-to-moment), and sometimes we're in situations more dire and threatening than dealing with a heckler. There are times when it's appropriate to be less subtle. Sometimes that "won't take no bullshit" face has to be the face of a full-on wrathful deity. Acala, a.k.a. Fudō-myōō, is my favorite of these: with a sword and a lariat and large fangs and a halo of flame, Acala personifies a state of mind that Takes No Bullshit and is not subtle about it.

But even Acala is, according to the mythology, ultimately kind. That lariat is there to lasso you and pull you out of hell. That sword is a surgeon's blade, cutting away ignorance.

Acala is the deity to whom Gary Snyder gave a wonderful new face in his poem Smokey the Bear Sutra, where he describes Smokey/Acala as "Wrathful but calm. Austere but Comic".

I'm reminded also of something the karate master Gichin Funakoshi wrote, that a true martial artist has both a smile that can win the hearts of little children and a fierceness that can make a tiger crouch in fear.

We have to be able to put on whatever face is appropriate to the situation. Being in the moment, we can be as wrathful as Acala or calm as the Buddha, putting on either a charming smile or a scowl that makes even wild beasts flee, responding and reflecting either "won't take no bullshit" or "has kindness in plenty to share" as appropriate to the situation.

The second question, on a completely different topic : "I know Bushido is like a code of ethics. What are men taught about how to treat women, like in dating/marriage etc, in this system?"

Bushidō -- "bushi", warrior, "war person", "dō", way, thus "way of the warrior" -- is often described as the Japanese version of chivalry. But while European chivalry is closely associated with an ideal of courtly love, the bushidō tradition is much less concerned with affairs of romance between men and women. The ancient tradition of bushidō is focused on loyalty to one's feudal lord, and preparation to die in that lord's service. Its primary values are generally counted as rectitude (or justice), courage, benevolence (or mercy), politeness, honesty and sincerity, honor, loyalty, and character and self-control. I don't think there is a bushido equivalent of the tales of Tristan and Iseult or of Lancelot and Guinevere. Instead the most famous tale of bushidō is probably the story of the 47 Ronin, which is about samurai avenging their dead lord.

It is a very macho code. Its ideal for women was described by Inazo Nitobe in a famous early 20th century book, Bushido: The Soul of Japan:

In the Bushido ideal of woman, however, there is little mystery and only a seeming paradox. I have said that it was Amazonian, but that is only half the truth. Ideographically the Chinese represent wife by a woman holding a broom--certainly not to brandish it offensively or defensively against her conjugal ally, neither for witchcraft, but for the more harmless uses for which the besom was first invented--the idea involved being thus not less homely than the etymological derivation of the English wife (weaver) and daughter (duhitar, milkmaid). Without confining the sphere of woman's activity to Kŭche, Kirche, Kinder, as the present German Kaiser is said to do, the Bushido ideal of womanhood was pre-eminently domestic. These seeming contradictions--domesticity and Amazonian traits--are not inconsistent with the Precepts of Knighthood, as we shall see.

Bushido being a teaching primarily intended for the masculine sex, the virtues it prized in woman were naturally far from being distinctly feminine.... Bushido similarly praised those women most "who emancipated themselves from the frailty of their sex and displayed an heroic fortitude worthy of the strongest and the bravest of men." Young girls, therefore, were trained to repress their feelings, to indurate their nerves, to manipulate weapons,--especially the long-handled sword called nagi-nata, so as to be able to hold their own against unexpected odds. Yet the primary motive for exercise of this martial character was not for use in the field; it was twofold-personal and domestic. Woman owning no suzerain of her own, formed her own body-guard. With her weapon she guarded her personal sanctity with as much zeal as her husband did his master's. The domestic utility of her warlike training was in the education of her sons, as we shall see later.

Fencing and similar exercises, if rarely of practical use, were a wholesome counterbalance to the otherwise sedentary habits of women. But these exercises were not followed only for hygienic purposes. They could be turned into use in times of need. Girls, when they reached womanhood, were presented with dirks (kai-ken, pocket poniards), which might be directed to the bosom of their assailants, or, if advisable, to their own. The latter was very often the case; and yet I will not judge them severely. Even the Christian conscience with its horror of self-immolation, will not be harsh with them, seeing Pelagia and Dominina, two suicides, were canonised for their purity and piety.

So it seems that according to Nitobe, the ideal bushi woman was one who was capable of defending the home in her husband's absence, of training her sons to be dutiful warriors, who was a good housekeeper, and who was ready to kill herself over a threat to her chastity. It's not exactly a feminist ideal.

On the other hand, we must note the existence of onna-bugeisha, female warriors in the Japanese tradition, including some who rose to great prominence.

With that background in mind, what would a modern man studying bushidō be taught about how to treat women in a romantic context? Unfortunately, a wide variety of behaviors could be justified by appeal to that tradition. On the one end, we have the expecations of femininiy that Nitobe presents, which would probably lead to a rather primitive treatment of women. On the other, any reasonably modern interpretation of the ideals of rectitude, politeness, honesty, honor, loyalty, and character and self-control should lead to a guy who treats women (and men!) with respect and courtesy.

I'm proud that the martial art in which I train, Seido Karate, has managed to achieve parity between male and female students. My own sensei is one of the pioneers of this: she's been training for over thirty years and has reached the rank of rokudan, sixth degree black belt -- not too shabby! I'd like to think that having women as teachers and students in the art has helped me eliminate (or at least minimize!) sexism in my own actions, but whether that's true or not is beyond my ability to judge without bias.

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