Throughout history the majority of martial arts have operated within a culture of honor. Warrior classes from Vikings to Medieval knights to modern military personnel have shared this tendency as well. The ideal has always been to combine martial skills with ethical codes of behavior.
In Japan this ethical code of conduct was called Bushido (“Way of the Warrior) or Budo (Way of the Spirit.) Bushido was intended to permeate the life of the samurai. Specifically, it developed these seven character traits: right action, courage, benevolence, respect, truthfulness, honor, and loyalty. Many modern day Jiu Jitsu practitioners still find the concept of “Bushido” to be an important component of their practice.
Why have codes of moral virtue been combined with martial skill?
Charles Darwin suggested an answer – he was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict the most basic premise of his Theory of Evolution, that natural selection should favor the ruthless.
People who are kind and generous should therefore die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet this is clearly not true, and all societies value kindness and generosity among their members.
Evolutionary biologists say that this seeming contradiction arises from the fact that we pass on our genes as individuals, but we survive as members of groups – and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole.
Neuroscientists say this dynamic has resulted in two patterns of reaction in our brains, a “Fast Track” and a “Slow Track.”
The Fast Track focuses on the individual.
- The Fast Track focuses on potential danger to us as individuals.
- It is characterized by the immediate, instinctive and emotional.
The Slow Track focuses on the group.
- The Slow Track enables us to take a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others.
- It is characterized by the reflective, rational and altruistic.
The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior – it brings moments of moral beauty into what might otherwise be harsh and lonely lives. The Fast Track helps us survive, but it is the Slow Track that enables us to thrive.
The Importance of Bushido.
This puts us in a position to understand why bushido was an important component of martial arts in the past — and why we still need it in the future. By encouraging ethical behavior, Bushido strengthens and speeds up the Slow Track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning moral behavior into instinct.
Bushido is the antidote to reckless behavior. It replaces emotional outbursts with moral choices. By metaphorically carving bushido into their hearts, the ideal samurai aimed to make “right action” automatic. This guided them towards the appropriate use of violence. Those who fell short of the ideal were more inclined to misuse their power and compromise their honor.
A strengthening of the slow track will highlight the honor in restraint. Unmitigated violence without the balance of a moral code is self destructive to the individual and the community they reside in.
The idea that Jiu Jitsu can now do without some form of ethical code of behavior, or Bushido, not only flies in the face of history, it contradicts evolutionary biology.
The emotional strength and psychological fitness that is associated with the Slow Track will likely have a greater impact on our life than martial arts skill or physical strength. This makes strengthening the Slow Track of our brains a supremely practical endeavor.
Philosophies such as Bushido are not a useless thing from the past. In fact, when combined with martial skill, they provide a more well rounded knowledge that is the way of the future.
What do you think? Do these moral codes still have a place in modern day Jiu Jitsu? Can they still be effective in helping us balance physical capabilities with a strong moral character?