In Defense of Violence: Ancient Japanese/Chinese/Internet Proverbs


I often reflected on a proverb. I cannot say when I first came upon it. Maybe I read it in a translated Japanese text, or was it Mandarin? There’s about a thirty-percent chance that it had Cantonese origins.  Though it’s more likely that it was a meme of mysterious origins (scrawled with ball-point pen on the back of a local cable company’s billing envelope sitting past due on the welcome desk of a strip mall, ninja school that hosts nightly masquerade balls for its LARPing members… no shinobi-no-mono). From there it likely spawned into the dark web upon the Cheetos-fingers of a plump pubescent would-be warrior of the night, and circulated with its unattributed quote through thousands of I.P. addresses where it finally found its way to my Facebook feed.

Its origins aside, it goes something like this: A student asks his teacher, “Master, you speak of peace yet why do you constantly train for war?” The teacher replies, “It is wiser to be a warrior in a garden than to be a gardener in a war.” Wow. Deep. There is nothing left to say except of course everything that I’m about to.

The proverb speaks to every lionhearted soul that resides within the body of a lamb. It speaks to every kid that is bullied, every person that seeks justice with swift, violent retribution, and those that seek refuge from oppressors and find none. Most of all, it speaks to the fear that lives within us all; the fear of violence, the fear of extermination, the fear that only one’s ego can create. I understand this fear. I’ve lived with it since I was a kid planning for the bully to come for me at recess, to my days in the Marines training to kill commie scum, then those terrorists, then other terrorists, then whoever the hell else we were supposed to kill. I live my life this way today—training my skills and my paranoia. If I’m honest, it’s more the latter than the former. (But hey, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get me.)

In every case, I’ve lived my life like you—fearing harm, fearing death, and fearing the loss of my self. So what harm is it then to train to defend yourself? As the proverb implies, wouldn’t you rather have defenses at your disposal in case you are plunged into violence that you do not desire? I would. I’ve seen enough of this world to know that violence can come to anyone, mostly at inopportune times, and in the most cowardly but effective fashion (a knife to the gut, a bullet to the back of the head, a bomb in a cafe). And there is another thing about violence; violence is action. Violence is premeditated. Violence is the crane technique (“If do right, no can defense.”) It drifts along as if carried by the wind, unseen until it cracks like a searing lightning bolt, choosing its unlucky victims against improbable odds.

Defense on the other hand is reaction. Defense is at best anticipated. Defense that is not constantly on guard is pointless. But defense that never lets its guard down is paranoia and herein lies the rub. How do you defend yourself without jumping at every shadow? There is one sure fire way, and that is to punch first—attack. It sounds crazy I know, but we’ve done it as a collective. (Preemptive war, anyone? Offense is the best defense!) But this is hardly a solution, even in a stand your ground kinda state. Preemptive violence in the name of defense is usually frowned upon. (Though in Florida much less so.)

So what is the solution? I’ve spent many sleepless nights locking my doors and windows, checking the perimeter of the house, clearing rooms multiple times over, dog by my side, weapons at the ready, looking for it. I haven’t found it in the back seat of my car, in the stairwell of a parking garage, down dark alleys, or near the emergency exit of every public establishment.

And then I came upon this other proverb:

A samurai has completed raiding a village where he and his men have killed, pillaged, and plundered to their delight. The samurai rides off on his horse to return to camp where he will enjoy the spoils and the comfort of his women. While on his way, he comes across a mountain road where an old monk materializes as if out of the snowy woods. The old monk stands still in meditation taking the middle of the road. A few of the samurai’s men shout at the old monk to clear the way, but he does not move, his meditation unbroken. Infuriated, the samurai charges his blood-drenched horse within a few feet of the old monk, unsheathes his katana with such fury that it spits the drops of blood of the last villager it slay upon the monk. The monk remains unmoved. The samurai shouts, “Fool! Do you not know who I am? I can cut you into a thousand pieces in the blink of an eye!” To which the monk replies, “I can be cut into a thousand pieces without blinking an eye.”

I see.

© J. Manuel

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