Dr. William Durbin

Some people say that in order to be a good martial artist or an expert of self defense, it is necessary to possess a killer instinct. Yet the very people who need self defense skills the most are those people who tend towards gentleness and non-violence. Would a person who is truly gentle and peaceful even enter a Dojo, if he/she were actually convinced that he/she would have to develop a killer instinct? Probably not. More important, what needs to be considered, is a killer instinct actually a positive attribute or a deadly attitude that needs to be expunged from a martial artist's personality.

Let's consider what a killer instinct actually is and what it can mean to a modern martial artist, not from the macho point of view, like in the movies, but in a realistic point of view, dealing with legal repercussions. A killer instinct is a willingness to kill in order to survive. In regards to sport, it is a willingness to enter into a competition with a disregard for the person you are facing, so that what happens to your opponent is viewed as his responsibility for entering the competition, so that the trophy can be won. It is this attitude that has led to the deaths of competitors in boxing rings, Judo tournaments, Karate competitions, and Tae Kwon Do matches.

In life, a killer instinct is a willingness to do anything to be called the winner. This can lead to a very dangerous way of life, where anything goes just so long as a person feels like they have won what they are seeking. With this type of attitude a person would feel justified to kill in order to keep a girl/boy friend, succeed in business, or in many cases just to prove a point. It is the prevalence of this attitude which might actually explain the current level of violence in our society, rather than the violence we see in television shows and movies. Other cultures have as much if not more violence in their forms of entertainment, than America, most noticeably the Japanese, and yet they have a lot less violence in their society. This could be simply because they have a strong since of loyalty, honor, and community presence, while in America, we have an intense interest in self promotion and a win at any cost, competitive attitude.

However, everybody in America is not competitive. There are many people who simply want to live their lives in peace, be the best they can be, and not become in conflict with anyone. And it is these people who would most be in need of self defense training and the philosophical instruction of traditional martial arts, where the training is geared towards self improvement and personal defense.

Some people then wonder, if a person learning self defense does not develop a killer instinct, how can they deal with a serious attack from a vicious assailant? And the answer to that question is the superior idea known as Honshin. Most martial artists are exposed to the idea of clearing their minds so that they can defend themselves effectively. This clearing of the mind is known as Mushin, and refers to getting rid of all extraneous thoughts which could interfere with spontaneous movement.

However, what lies next in the progress of the mental development is Honshin. Honshin is not just knowing what is right, but the ability to adjust to any given situation with the right action. One of the first questions a beginner will ask, after learning a few techniques, is how will I know which technique to use in an attack, and the answer is by Honshin. This state of mind allows a student to know what needs to be done and when. It allows for the severity of a situation and the many different possible reactions that can be given by a martial artist.

In example, an attacker may grab your arm, which could be nothing more than a bothersome situation, a prelude to a strike, or an extremely aggressive assault leading to a possible rape or kidnapping. If a person reacts with a killer instinct, he/she may kill when the situation does not warrant it. Or if a person tries to 'figure' out what to do, they may hesitate and not success in defending themselves. But by being able to rely on Honshin, the person will know what to do, when to do it, and how much force to use.

Properly developed Honshin allows a martial artist to be free to act without hesitation. It also allows the person to act without guilt. Too many times after a self defense situation, a person will second guess themselves. They will ask themselves over and over again, what could they have done differently. But by achieving Honshin, the person does not have to agonize over the decisions made during the confrontation, they will know they did the right thing.
The question then is, how does a martial artist develop Honshin and the simple answer is, proper training in the martial arts, but the key word here is 'proper'. Training specifically to have a killer instinct or to fight competitively, creates a predisposition for a certain type of action. Generally a person who thinks of developing a killer instinct is programming themselves to fight. This prejudgement means that even if a situation does not warrant combat, the person will engage in the battle, because they have filled their minds with the concept of fighting. A competitive attitude can generate an attitude of conflict where none needs to be. In real life there are more times when it would be better for a person to walk away, yet if the person is use to the idea of fighting and 'answering' a challenge with combat, they may employ violence where it is not necessary.

It is necessary to understand that violence is never considered the best response in any situation. Most especially in regard to legal repercussions it needs to be avoided. Too many young people take the scenes in movies entirely too seriously. There are so many martial arts movies which show the hero engage in battle, seriously injuring or killing the'bad guys' and then being treated like a hero after the battle is over. While movies should give us happy endings and a positive expression of live. They should be fun entertainment of how things could or should be, in that the bad guy loses and the good guy wins and is rewarded as a hero. But real life is not movie life. If a person gets into a fight, they had better be able to prove complete justification for their actions, or they will go to prison for seriously injuring or killing another person.

If the judge determines that a person was exercising a killer instinct in regard to a defensive situation, it is a good bet he will also consider the defender as having used excessive force and rule against him/her. This could then lead to a record for assualt, manslaughter, or murder. Currently the main self defense concept in force in most states, is that a person can use no more force to defend him/herself, than the attacker intends to use on them. A killer instinct will almost assuredly result in the use of excessive force, as will almost any competitive urge.

In regard to the type of training which develops Honshin, first and foremost the training must be taught with an ethical basis. There must be instruction in non-violence and the desire for peaceful resolution to conflict. Second, the training really needs to be realistically based in effective fighting skills. Too many young people, who train in competitive arts, think of a fight in the same manner as a sparring match. They think that they will honorably 'fight' a bad guy and once they defeat him, he will just give up. But that is an illusion brought on by the tournament scene and too many movies. One actual experience which might shed some light and understanding on the reality of fighting is as follows, a young man was dating a girl who happened to also be dating another fellow. Eventually the two young men found out about each other and decided to have a fight to see who would 'win her hand'. She was quite impressed, they were young, and she decided to go with the winner. Finally the two men battled it out and one won. He left with the girl in his arms. A week later, the loser drove up behind the winner and shot him. Luckily it only hit him in the leg and he lived. But what must be realized is that the fight was not over, just because one had physically dominated the other. It would have been better for everyone if the fight had never happened and the young girl had picked the one she really wanted to be with.

Another situation dealing with the repercussions of fighting, is when a young man became involved in a conflict, once again over a young girl, and when he was attacked by a group of friends of his rival, he pulled a knife to threaten them. He had hoped they would retreat, but instead the rival lunged at him and was impaled on the knife. And while the knife wound was not too severe, in shock and panic the assailant fell to the ground where he died from a head injury. The young man ended up going to prison for manslaughter. This is the reality of combat. Everyone needs to understand what can really happen when they get into a fight. When was the last time you heard a martial arts instructor explain the potential for a head injury due to a fall in a Dojo? And yet in self defense a kick or punch could drop a man to the ground, or a throw or jointlock could cause the head to strike the ground. Students need to have this explained to them so that they will be reluctant to fight. In order to actually save their lives, or the life of an innocent, the results, while unwanted, are acceptable. But to fight over something not life threatening, makes the potentiality of a prison sentence, or just having to live with killing someone, unacceptable.

Finally, the training needs to be based on the spiritual aspect like the training of old. In the past, the Sohei (warrior monks), Bushi and Samurai were taught that their spirits were good and needed to be in harmony with the Universal Spirit (sic. God). If they came into this harmony then their skills would proceed from their hearts and since their hearts would be pure, their art would be as well. Training needs to include the spiritual aspect of Kata, where a person is taught that doing Kata allows them to experience harmony with nature, a nature established by God. So that the closer the martial artist harmonies with natural law, the closer they feel to the author of that law. It is this spiritual aspect that really makes Honshin so effective. When the martial arts are taught in this proper manner, then physically the skills improve, mentally the attitude improves, and spiritually the person wants to do what is right.

In regard to real life self defense, we must honestly admit that anything can happen from the easiest escape, where no one gets hurt, to the receiving of serious injury, and the dealing of death. A person who develops the killer instinct, literally looks forward to the opportunity to invoking that instinct in a trail of combat. But one who develops the Honshin will kill only if necessary, and avoid making it necessary, at all costs, except for the sacrifice of themselves or an innocent. The person of Honshin will realize that no trophy or championship is worth the potential of seriously injuring or possibly killing another human being. And in life the Honshin martial artist will apply the principle to decisions of life, living with honor and not selling themselves out for money or fame, seeking instead to live a life of peace and dedication.

So it is alright to say No to the killer instinct. For with proper martial arts training the person will still be able to defend themselves effectively, making sure to use the right amount of force, without exceeding what is necessary, while developing a mental ability which will allow the person to meet all situations in life with equanimity, knowing that they have done what needs to be done, not more nor less. This then is the superior mental level sought by Oriental philosophers and martial artists for centuries, and available to those who are willing to seek higher spiritual levels through martial arts training today.