There are three things that are taboo to talk about, religion, politics and comic books. And I'm not talking about any of them. That's my disclaimer.
Over the last three decades or more, I’ve seen many a martial art master preach the philosophy, the code of conduct, the ethics, the creed, the way that we are all supposed to live by. Unfortunately, a lot of it is the art of “bullshido.” We are supposed to be scholar-warriors, but many, hiding behind the guise of ethical and moral ideals, never live up to them, or, worse, completely disregard them when it comes to their own personal dealings. When you’re young and enamored with the martial arts and the code or the way, you have dreams of becoming a Samurai or a Kung Fu warrior walking in the dessert to go and avenge his father’s death. Righteousness, benevolence, loyalty and other philosophical standards are earmarks of the true martial artist. However, it seems to me that every established organized religion or organization that espouses a code of ethics or morality is a construct made up by those in power. They want to keep you in check while they go off and do whatever they feel like doing. They make you toe the line and control you with ethical values and the guilt that comes when you don’t adhere to them.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have rules, ethics, ways of life, codes and such. As Winston says to John Wick in John Wick: Chapter 2, “Rules… without them we live with the animals.” And I must agree, there need to be rules, norms, standards and codes that we follow not just to elevate ourselves but to elevate humanity because this is what separates us from any other wild beast, be it something that lives in the jungle or something that lives in the jungle of New York City. And isn’t this what the study of martial arts is supposed to be all about? I’m talking about the actual true study of real traditional martial arts. In my opinion, this study is for the purpose of elevating the status of man and his world, no?
Unfortunately, although it’s preached all the time in martial arts, it’s often not lived up to in my humble opinion. Many masters, big and small, have touted how you should be and what you should do and how you should treat others, but few of them actually live by that standard themselves. They don’t do as they say or practice what they preach. This double standard is incredibly hurtful. It is not the rules of any religion, philosophy or martial art system that are inherently wrong or bad. It is the way people twist and use these rules, or ignore them altogether, that creates the issue.
I think what inspired me is the other day I saw the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. When I was much younger, I had read the book by Nikos Kazantzakis. It’s an awesome read as well as a very well-made movie. Kazantzakis looks at Jesus not necessarily as a deity personified in human form, but rather as an ordinary man being asked, by God, to live up to a certain standard and ultimately sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity. Kazantzakis portrays Jesus as a man with wants and desires of his own who isn’t always happy that he’s been chosen to be the Messiah. He has moments where he tries to please God and wants to do what’s right, but he is always being undermined by his humanity. On the cross, he is tempted by an angel with the prospect of an ordinary life. Not knowing that the angel is in fact Satan, Jesus gives in and steps down off the cross, believing that everyone will think that he was crucified even though he can live out the rest of his days as a normal man with a wife and children. On his deathbed, Jesus realizes that he made a mistake and asks for another chance. He goes back to the cross and goes through with the crucifixion. I’m not looking at this movie from a religious point of view or making any kind of comment or judgment about Jesus or Christianity. I’m looking at the movie from a humanistic point of view. I think it’s a great study in human nature and how we all fall victim to our wants and desires. All of us have difficulty living up to this golden standard. We are all tested and tried, but we all have the chance and opportunity to go back and right ourselves, right those things that we did that were wrong and try to live up to that standard.
The problem that I have is when the powers that be set up these standards and expect you to live up to them when they don’t. I think the individual man, the average Joe, probably does a better job than many of these established leaders. I don’t have a problem with somebody that does their best to do good but knows they are human and acknowledges their human frailties and faults. My problem is with people that portray themselves as being pristine but yet are the dirtiest ones of all. These leaders have sway over others and use rules and philosophical tenets as a modicum of control while not living them as they lay them out. For example, I’m sure that Mao Tze Tung did not live a Communistic life. I’m sure that he had opulence that the populace did not have. I’d rather have someone just come out and say, I’m the king and everyone will do as I say, as opposed to someone that hides behind the guise of “the golden rule” and being “right” when they’re so wrong. I think probably the majority of these leaders didn’t start out bad. I think they were corrupted slowly, subversively, through the power. Another example is in the revolution against the Ching by the Ming rebels. The rebels established all these secret societies and organizations that were put together for the unification of their country to get rid of this foreign power that overtook them and murdered their countrymen. Over time, these organizations were slowly subverted and became something else. It’s that slow degradation, that slow decay. How do you stop that? I think that has to be done on an individual basis, but it takes a stronger character to stand up for what is right. It’s one thing to give it lip service ;it’s another thing to live it on a daily basis.
It’s a moral and existential issue in today’s society and I’m sure it existed in days gone by, that you profess and try to uphold one type of thinking but inevitably it can’t hold its shine for too long. People in general have a way of bringing things down to a baser level, and not being able to live up to whatever standard was originally intended. You set up these ideals, but after a while you find yourself waning. If you’re the leader of a group or the leader of a team, be it in a corporate environment, in government or on the battlefield, you’re the person that everyone looks towards. The Greeks have an old saying, “The fish stinks from the head.” I always liked that saying. If the top individuals are wrong in your church, government or even in a martial arts school, you have the top man doing whatever he wants to do but telling everybody else how to be. Then you’re not being exemplary in your actions. I think that the philosophies that have been taught to us and placed in front of us for us to follow should be followed by all, especially from the top down.
I’m not talking about politics. I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about people being phony. I’m not putting down these systems and these norms. I actually am a firm believer in them. Don’t we all find it disappointing when we see individuals and leaders within society professing one ideal but living another? They don’t live up to that standard by any stretch of the imagination but expect you to do so. I think this has been true for thousands of years and it’s just the way it is. This is my observation, but it’s not going to change me.
I’m not going to change what I believe in. I still believe in being good and standing up for what is right, having respect and honor for those that are deserved of it. I guess you can say that I’m naïve and idealistic, but I still want to believe that good guys wear black and in the end they win. I want to believe that the right way truly is the right way, and you should be able to adhere to your standards and not have to compromise your integrity just to get by. I still believe in those moral and ethical ideals. As human beings, we have points of weakness, and that’s okay as long as everybody understands that and you try to right yourself, catch yourself before you go too far. I think that’s the good fight that we try to do every day.
-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅