The famous sixteenth century Japanese swordsman Tsukahara Bokuden is said to have had a student who was famous for being incredibly skilled, faster than anyone else, and almost unbeatable in combat. One day this disciple was walking down the street and passed near a very unsettled horse, who, feeling his presence, bucked and tried to kick him. However, the young man was so quick to react that he avoided the kick in one swift move. Everyone who saw this was amazed and cheered for him. The disciple was very proud of himself, going to his master later that day to relate the story.
To his surprise, Bokuden was not happy, and expelled the student from his school. Bokuden’s sons asked their father why he had expelled such a great protege. He replied: “A man who cannot foresee danger ahead is a lost cause, no matter how skilled. I thought he was a man of better judgment but I was mistaken.”
From this story we see that Bokuden valued good judgment much higher than great skill, because great skill is actually a dangerous thing in the hands of a careless person. I am reminded of this when I’m driving down the highway and someone goes by me at 20 or 30 miles per hour faster than the speed limit weaving in and out of traffic. Their poor judgment is no match for their (questionable) driving skills, and many times with terrible consequences.
This is the main reason why a Martial Artist must first endeavor to perfect oneself as a person before attempting to perfect their technique. To be in control of one’s actions and emotions is a higher achievement than to overcome an opponent.
Our Karate students learn many strikes, kicks, blocks, takedowns, etc. But they know what matters most, as one of my students put it quite clearly just a few days ago as she was leaving class. I asked this ten year old: “Miss Susan, before you go, what can you improve on in the week ahead?” She turned to me and said: “Think before I act.” I stopped for a second to reflect and said: “I could not have said it better. You go and do just that.”
It was such a simple statement, but of very profound meaning. What if we carefully consider what we are about to say or do, even when we are under pressure? Even after we have been hurt or insulted, to respond in a truly thoughtful way. To consider the repercussions of our actions before taking them and do what is best, not just what feels good at the time. When we do that, this is the greatest victory one can achieve. A victory over self.