Communication No 2 by Sensei Roland Habersetzer at the Tengu Institute


Traps of the ego and suicidal "knowledge"


"The saber is a treasure in its sheath." ( Japanese proverb )

The first reason for being of a martial art, before any philosophical reflection, is simply to provide means of surviving an extremely violent conflictual situation. That is why any "empty hand" technique ( i.e. "Kara Te", by definition, but I mean it here as a generic term, to make things plain, for many techniques sharing the same technical process as Japanese Karatedo ) must aim for the development of a body and mind with a "cutting edge", in the true meanig of the word: body and mind trained as a weapon, as a saber... in order to remain faithful to the spirit of Tradition and at the same time be realistic in our changing world ( where one no longer gives words their true meaning, therefore being content with shallow substitute concepts ). It must aim at developing a truly "sharp" body and spirit: the body and the spirit trained as an weapon, as a saber... To practice a martial art, is to learn how to manipulate a weapon, or else nothing makes sense anymore... I know it is not easy.

This is precisely where the problem is. The weapon’s image is by definition negative in our society that prefers to ignore a disturbing dark corner and condemns globally and beforehand anyone who dares take that issue seriously.

The weapon evokes violence violence, destruction, death. The lethal aspect ( = deadly ) conveyed by its image cannot legitimize its existence in a society trying hard to look "civilized". So is it still possible to make understand that all weapon is inactive in itself and that ( a fundamental reminder of all traditional martial knowledge ) the ultimate weapon is the mind...? The rest may be a bonus, incidentally. But now this has been said, henceforth it no longer seems necessary to me to discuss that issue here.

Certainly, the very existence of a weapon can be harmful when given to someone that is not prepared, neither technically (risk of physically uncontrolled manipulation), nor mentally (risk of using it outside of the " right spirit" ). I choose not to address that situation: I wish to write only for people actually practising a martial art ( i.e having a weapon and an ethics), not for those whose irresponsible behavior would rather remind one of the sinister Lords of the War in ancient kingdoms of China. For there never should be an accident in the practice of a martial art, that is to say something that would happen inadvertently, that one would not have truly wanted. There is no being surprised by a technique that would escape us and whose efficiency could suddenly prove unsuspectedly destructive. That is also why an authentic martial practice never can be interpreted as playful. The rules for using these techniques are so strict and filled with graveness that they would not be used in a game. Or else they lose their essence. It is because these rules lead to something different: to bring the martial student to a daily behavior, inside as outside of the dojo, all the more exemplary that he/she has accepted the responsibility for the detention of a real "weapon". This is the core of the problem.

In martial arts, the learning of techniques (surface) goes along with the building of a mind capable of evaluating the stakes of a possible confrontation with external violence. The progress, both technical and mental, following precepts of the "Way" (Do, Michi...) aquires thus a real educative value for life in society: I mean the fully aware respect for others, their physical integrity, perhaps their life. This respect can only find a limit in the imperious necessity to preserve one’s life or the life of someone that cannot protect it alone.

Hence, any physical confrontation becomes an extremely serious affair and has to remain absolutely exceptional, one refusing to indulge into any manifestation of the "ego", the superficial self...).It should be the very last resort, by no means a pleasing thing, and it should result from a decision, a choice, a will of control, with the whole acceptance of the responsibility of all possible consequences that decision may have. Of course that would take place under a lot of stress, under the brutal impact of an adverse aggressiveness, in a short fraction of time that disturbs all normal perceptive abilities. The traditional teaching, with this notion of research of the internal mastery and discovery of the constructive value of a chosen non-violence (and not performed out of weakness), meets the accepted range of action defined by the modern legislator ( possible application of a minimal defense force, necessary and sufficient, without excuse in case of excess). Tradition is an educative lever: to take care of the sabre, to want to possess the best that is, but to refuse to draw it just to show how well polished it is, to be envied or to have one’s 15 minutes of fame... One must train with a wooden sabre (bokken) while thinking that each time it slices, to perform each technique "as if", with whole body and spirit, without ever allowing oneself to wish to prove "just to see if it works", "just for fun"…

Can you see the open trap for the ego...? This has nothing to do with the winning of a title, a superiority acknowledged by an audience, the flattery of the "self". Because there is no common measures, contrarily to what it is commonly admitted, between the aggressiveness that can be displayed in a competition and the possible violence in a fight for survival.

One must sharpen with extreme care his/her weapon, without ever wishing to use it, not even to show it... Such is the well-known yet rarely understood or accepted paradox in truly martial ( by definition related to violence ) arts !


I understand however that one might wish to "play" fighting, but provided that it is not taken seriously. Playing while exchanging techniques, but also keeping the spirit of the game, is possible.

The attempt to prove a superiority in an competitive assault is acceptable only if included in a playful dimension, therefore respecting conventions. This step, however, is not an indispensable stage to progress in martial arts, far from it ! It may often be a "manly" game, but since it follows rules that always make the assault partial, the results are therefore highly debatable in a real combat for survival. Yet who is ready to admit the obviousness of this notion of relativity in such a demonstration, in general largely validated by an audience whose ignorance of reality favors mistakes ? This confusion begets two dangers. First, using game rules to give free expression to violence (gestural, verbal, and mental) displayed with the complicity of all, to the only purpose of pumping up the ego, convinced of the efficiency of what is "played", is an extremely dangerous drift. A drift that is radically opposed to the discovery proposed by the martial way, and where many have wasted chances that they had in the first place.


As in a bad role-playing game, one might go crazy beacause he took the game too seriously. Harmful for oneself ( false feeling of invulnerability ) and for others ( uncontrolled actions ). Nowadays, a big amount of violence is commonly admitted in many sports ( not just fighting sports ), even encouraged in the name of victory at all costs. Does the so-called need for release in our troubled societies justify excessive behaviors ?

It is nevertheless aberrant to take note on the one hand of a largely displayed violence in stadiums and rings ( clearly evolving into "games of gladiators"), commonplace in a civilization striving to appear "civilized", and on the other hand to notice how that same civilization is shocked by the mere evocation of an "armed" practice ( i.e a martial practice ) which still dares to say its name, in which the gesture to mutilate or kill is only suggested with an absolute control ! No justification is accepted in martial art, where there is no alibi to the display of a gratuitous violence, whereas it is so easily found in competitive practice. Where is then the educative aspect of a practice ?

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It is truly in the tolerated practice of the " empty hand " outside its initial martial framework that lays the real danger of incorrectly acquired gestures, not really "experienced", and applied without the "right spirit". The danger comes from a deviated utilization, without the ethics that was taught to control. There is also a danger in the lack of realism, that gives a false feeling of security within a shallow substitution practice, which in turn will lead to the need to prove that supposed superiority.

Yet many concepts that may be valid in competitive games are absolutely "suicidal" if they are applied to real combat… A competitive fighting situation, even though it may be violent or deceivingly seem so, is far from a confrontation where what is at stake is survival in very harsh conditions. And this is also true of many complex traning programs, apparently designed for real close combat, which create illusions that may prove fatal in the naked reality.One always plays a game, even if one can be hurt very badly. Could it be any different since one (fortunately) moves in a substitute "reality"? But in martial arts, it is everything or nothing ... Isn’t "nothing" better ?

Do you remember this extraordinary scene in the famous Kurozawa film " The 7 Samurais", when a man confidently defies the Samurai to a duel where the true sabre replaces the wooden one ? When the Samurai, aware of the terrible and unnecessary risk, triggered by only the man’s pride, first ignores, then finally accepts to notice the provocation : he kills him with one single sharp blow, almost reluctantly ? Do you remember the expression on his face ? No pride, no satisfaction, nothing but graveness and lassitude in the face of such stupidity. The man had been stupid enough to play with death, only in order to know, to prove something… Always the ego... In martial arts, it is always a matter of life and death. In a state of absolute stress. No time to think of one’s image, of the audience, of anything beyond what is going to happen in a split second. All those who have one day been brutally confronted with this type of situation know that the body as the spirit react then in a totally different manner than what one knows in situation of normal training: adrenalin rush, disrupted perception, dysfunction of learnt gestures, etc... No, no, it has nothing to do with what one believes happens during a fight with rules. It is worse when one knows that absolutely no external help is available... This is why, in martial training, mentally speaking rather than technically, the preparation goes in directions almost diametrically opposed to those that are pursued in the conventional and athletic game. Perhaps a frustrating training, so severe and little complacent with the ego it is, because it is intended never to be used, at best, or, at worst, only to be used once.Think: this is not stupid at all, and absolutely not reprehensible by any censor that would act in the name of a so-called morals of non-violence, demolished by the sad daily reality.

And then, there is something else in this sort of hypocrisy with which are content the majority of martial artists. Do they really know that this famous state of "killer" spirit, made of gratuitous and unhealthy aggressiveness, that is often seen in "arbitrated" combat is something that has nothing to do with an "final" encounter taking place in a "mined" field...? Because whom, among all those who display thus their violence with the blessing of media, would be ready to cross the barrier between life and death? Their own barrier ? The other’s barrier ? And even if they would, could they ? This is a prohibition in our culture ( "Thou shallt not kill" ) and I do not come to this point light-heartedly. To possess a weapon, and at the same time being unable or not wanting to use it if the moment comes, when this ultimate moment of truth one has tried to approach for all these years of more or less genuine training may come up, is certainly the worst trap created by a pseudo-martial preparation. Martial arts teach us to know what treasure life is, and also that the smallest mistake may cost one this precious life. That is why they preach moderation, withdrawal, modesty. That is why they build responsible men and women, for a society that needs authenticity, not just appearances. That is why they demand one to be ready, without the need to let others know, or in fear to have to let others know.

To be, not to seem... In martial arts, " you can’t judge a book by its cover"…

To be continued …

Roland Habersetzer, Director of the Tengu Institute.