“On Mercy,” by Charles Warren

“There has to be some balance here. If all we wanted to
do is maim and kill, there are more efficient avenues.”

Mercy is only a meaningful concept if an alternative is immediately available to you.

Examples are too many to enumerate. Achilles could have been merciful to the Trojans who attempted to surrender to him, but his grief and rage had him kill them instead. If he had chosen mercy it would have implied that some element of his character rose above that grief and rage so that he forbore slaying his prisoners.

Training has something to do with police keeping their firearms holstered when arresting unarmed suspects, but it is still at least institutionalized mercy, consistent with the legal presumption of innocence.

If I choose to go unarmed, some of that is risk assessment. Being armed in a public place in California is usually criminal, so what is more likely, arrest on a weapons charge or being subject to some criminal attack? Some of my choice is confidence in my unarmed martial skills. Some of it, though, is my distaste for killing things, which is a species of mercy. Does that give me some sense of virtue? I suppose.

The sense of virtue, though, is just a vanity. It is especially a vanity if in fact the one who is flattering themselves in fact has no option beside either prevailing gently or losing and becoming subject to the victor’s whim. All good if they do prevail, and possibly karmicly virtuous even if they lose, but mercy, at least by my thought of the evening implies the availability of more severe options.

Coming back to aikido techniques, again strictly my thought of the moment is that only if you know the rigorous forms can you call omitting them merciful. So, I certainly don’t doubt for a minute that O Sensei could have devastated his training partners. Their ukemi demonstrate their respect for that potential. But I’m told that Saito Sensei opined that without mercy, ukemi is impossible. Certainly that is not to imply that practicing severe forms and injuring people has a place in the dojo. Practicing the severe forms short of injury, however, may be fundamental. Without that, how can you personally claim to be merciful? You, whatever your mental state or intentions, would be constrained by your limited technical knowledge.

It does occur to me that consistently training in merciful techniques may make the merciful option more available to us. Trading places continuously might even improve our compassionate character. There has to be some balance here. If all we wanted to do is maim and kill, there are more efficient avenues. If, however, we never wanted to do that or conceived any necessity, why not just do dance? (I know – dance is harder!)



  1. I think one of the (many) beauties of Aikido is the option of being merciful, or taking it to the next level IF the situation warrants it. The saying “The sword that gives life, the sword that takes life”, we are “the sword”. The late Terry Dobson sensei, from what I heard, is that he always talked about benevolence.

    I often say that one has to know how to hurt someone in order not to hurt them. That doesn’t mean apply hurtful techniques and then say “oops, sorry, I know enough not to do that again”. But rather by being aware of ones actions and the consequences, we can decide a less harmful path.

    Thank-you for listening.
    Mark E. White

  2. …Thank YOU Mark. I had the honor of training a few times with Dobson Sensei and regret his absence.

  3. Brett Jackson says:

    Well said, Charles-san. Just to highlight a few points and not to take issue with anything. Aikido offers the possibility of merciful self-defence indeed. Nage learns control and the options of ratcheting up the technique according to need. Indeed, again, ukemi is possible because of nage’s mercy. To some extent, the better (the more high-level) the uke, which doesn’t necessarily correspond to rank, the less merciful nage needs to be. I suppose the concept of a of good uke is subject to some variation. For me, a good uke can take high level ukemi, follow well, be flexible, not use muscle to resist the technique, set the stage for nage’s constructive practice, etc. A good nage is somewhat a mirror image: demonstrates high-level nage-waza, follows uke (there is some give and take here not just pure taking), is flexible, preferably does not use muscle to enforce the technique, sets the stage for uke’s constructive practice, and exhibits some form, as you suggest, of mercy where possible, feasible, and well-advised. Aikido practice as nage/uke is win-win (all the best to Stephen Covey, I wonder if he had any experience of aikido). Practice is one thing, application another, but even application is not necessarily without mercy.

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