Mercy is Found in Death

Mercy is the ability to destroy a person at the very moment of his or her error or mistake, at his or her most fragile and vulnerable, but choosing instead to offer compassion to that person, to teach him or her how to be better.

Ellis Amdur and Budd Yuhasz performing a jo kata at Kogen Dojo

One of the foundational training methods of classical Japanese martial arts is the use of paired kata, partner drills meant to ingrain in the practitioners a specific set of skills, attitudes, and principles. In a kata, there are essentially two positions or roles. Shidachi is the person doing the technique, the person winning, the person killing his or her opponent. Uchidachi is the person receiving the technique, the person losing, the person who is dying.

Traditionally, the teacher is uchidachi, the losing position in the kata, with the student being shidachi. Uchidachi’s role is not a passive one. Uchidachi does not simply let shidachi win. It is uchidachi’s responsibility to lead and guide shidachi through the kata, by exposing and filling in the holes in shidachi’s technique, balance, distancing, and attitude. The teacher’s goal is not to embarrass or humiliate the student, but to build him or her up slowly by making adjustments, large or small, by adding pressure and resistance, but never too much, to point out mistakes and weakness, while simultaneously helping the student to overcome these along the way to success.

While the teacher sacrifices his or her own life and body for the sake of the student’s learning, he or she learns as much or more through this process. By being an active observer, by making the macro or micro-adjustments necessary to lead shidachi through the kata, uchidachi becomes hypersensitive to openings and mistakes that, if he or she chose to, could be violently exposed and taken advantage of. Shidachi may never even realize this because the lesson is not his or her to learn, yet. It may seem counterintuitive, but through teaching shidachi how to be more expertly violent, uchidachi is learning how to defeat such violence and, more so, the teacher is learning how to give life instead of how to take it.

“As in life, so too it is in budo. As in budo, so too it is in life.”

-Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Taikyoku Mind & Body and Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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