Passing on Martial Morality

One question I had been waiting to ask Dr. Yang was, “How do you pass on Martial Morality?”

Martial arts training begins with the mind and heart. A person who has only the physical training can potentially use their skills for self gain or wrongdoing. This goes against the spirit and essence of martial arts. To me, they are about bettering yourself and being a positive presence in your environment. Martial Morality are the high moral standards that martial artists strive to embody. They are divided into two categories:

Morality of Deed: Humility, Respect, Righteousness, Trust, and Loyalty
Morality of Mind: Will, Endurance, Perseverance, Patience, and Courage

Traditionally, people were not accepted as martial arts students until they demonstrated Martial Morality to the master. In modern days, it is different because teaching martial arts has become a livelihood. This makes it difficult to pass on Martial Morality for at least two reasons. 1) Teachers will accept less than worthy students or risk being unable to support themselves 2) Students do not live with their teachers and they are exposed to many different influences. When students lived with their master, they could learn by example, by receiving punishments for violations, or by dealing with consequences of their actions. Today’s martial arts learning environments make it more difficult for students to receive exposure to lessons in Martial Morality.

Martial Morality can not be taught and understood through instruction. Teachers can not tell their students to behave a certain way and expect them to follow. Students need to understand the meaning and weight of their actions before they decide how they will behave. If Martial Morality can not be taught, how can it be passed on and learned?
“The taller the bamboo grows, the lower it bows.”

Although Martial Morality can not be taught, it can be learned. The most effective way of learning is through first hand experiences of life lessons. When good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished, students can begin to understand the consequences of their actions. Another way of learning is through the examples and experiences of teachers and peers. Ideally, teachers will serve as a positive role model and possess more good traits than bad ones. However, they are human and will make mistakes. In order to learn from others, students must be perceptive and have the ability to empathize. Oftentimes, this requires students to experience some of their own life lessons first.

In a martial arts environment, there is a greater chance a student will develop discipline due to learning about Martial Morality. True martial arts teachers will reward and punish students accordingly. However, “real” society often provides incentives to behave immorally. Most people will cheat if they know they can get away with it. The biggest challenge for teachers is conveying this message to their students. The biggest challenge to the students is remembering what they have learned and resisting temptations.

Game Theory – Prisoner’s Dilemma

EDIT: Here’s a better explanation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. (Note: the outcomes in the graph below are the opposite of the graph above – Confess = Defect, Keep Quiet = Cooperate) Imagine you (Prisoner A) and your partner in crime (Prisoner B) have been separated for interrogation. If you keep quiet, you had better hope your partner also keeps quiet so you both get 1 year in jail. However, if you keep quiet while your partner confesses, you will get 10 years while your partner goes free. If both confess, you both get 5 years. Herein lies the dilemma – Do you confess and hope to get 5 years or go free? Or do you keep quiet and hope to get only 1 year, but at the same time risk receiving 10 years?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma also applies to business and other life scenarios. My point is, we are often faced with incentives to take the less moral path.

When kids classes are as short as 45 minutes, there is hardly enough time for teachers to cover the physical side of martial arts, let alone Martial Morality. The young students also have many outside influences in the form of parents, school teachers, coaches, peers, and the media. These influences may teach students to think or act in ways which conflict with Martial Morality. When I asked Dr. Yang how we can pass on these lessons to kids, he said to tell them stories. I agree that this is probably the most effective method in today’s world. Storytelling goes across the board in all cultures, as each culture has legends and folk tales which are aimed at teaching lessons in life. Telling kids what they should and should not do is not as effective as telling a story and hoping they learn from it by empathizing with the characters. Dr. Yang said his Chinese folk tales books aimed at kids are not popular. Maybe kids are exposed to too many stories from other sources. Maybe these stories need to be updated and retold in a way that fits with modern times. Here are a few:

I followed up my question by asking, “What about adults?” Kids are young and impressionable, but by a certain age, people become set in their ways. Dr. Yang didn’t have an answer for me. He simply said it was much harder to pass Martial Morality on to adults. He referred to this Chinese proverb:

江山易改, 本性難移

“It is easy to change rivers and mountains, but hard to change a person’s nature.” 

When I look at the Moralities as a whole, I believe they are about developing the ability to prevent your emotions from controlling you. This does not mean suppress all emotions and numb yourself, or that you can control how you feel. Acknowledge emotions and let them go without acting immorally. Not all emotions will harm your development as a martial artist or person. I use certain emotions to help overcome obstacles in training and in life. We should not completely suppress the emotional mind (Xin 心) because it allows us to have Morality of Deed.

As an adult, I am discovering that certain personal rules are set, and others are more flexible or even changing. I hold high standards of morality for myself, but I do not impose them on others. We are constantly faced with choices which test our morality. I mess up each each week, sometimes each day. The scariest thing is not the act of compromising my beliefs or the guilt that follows, but indifference to the act. I have been on that side before, but I will try my best to stay away from that path.

The degradation in the quality of martial arts is partially due to the fact that few students possess Martial Morality. As a teacher, it is my responsibility to be an example and pass on Martial Morality to my students. Without a strong emphasis on Martial Morality, the arts will not be able to survive in the highest and purest form. To survive and excel in the intense physical training, a student must have Morality of Mind. A student who demonstrates Morality of Deed is worthy of being a member of society, whether as a student, teacher, family member, friend, or stranger. These are some of the rules I strive to embody, and I hope my students do the same.

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