Setsuninto--Katsujinken

by Ellis Amdur

" ...He deserves death!

"Deserves it! I dare say he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all the ends...."

--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

"Every minute my joy increased... because I found myself in an extraordinary state of the most complete invulnerability, such as I had never before experienced. Nothing at all could confuse me, annoy me or tire me. Whatever was being thought of by those men, conversing animatedly in another corner of the room, I would regard them calmly, from a distance they could not cross."

--Vera Zasulick, after her assassination of General Trepov, governor of St. Petersburg

The sword that takes life, the sword that gives life

The Japanese sword was never a mere ribbon of polished and sharpened steel. In the juxtaposition of blade and scabbard, there exists an emblem of the dynamic interplay of male and female, penetration and containment, power dependent as much upon its reserve as its expression. The sword itself was the embodiment of the principle of law founded upon hierarchy, the ruling warriors' power rooted in their submission to a web of obligations and loyalties to superiors, their weapons instruments of service rather than of freedom. In religious iconography, the Taoist sword cuts through undifferentiated chaos, introducing delineation into the universe, creating darkness and light, yin and yang, positive and negative and from this duality, the birth of the myriad forms of the universe. The Buddhist sword is the sword that cuts through illusion, the bright cold edge of mindful consciousness which requires one to face reality with open eyes and courageous heart.

Setsuninto (the sword that takes life) and katsujinken (the sword that gives life) are concepts which attempt to differentiate between the use of the sword for murderous ends as opposed to its use to protect people or to preserve the order of society.

These two phrases give rise to a variety of interpretations. At its most naive is the idea that, having power, one can choose to use it either to hurt others or lead them from evil paths. This is sometimes a fantasy of aikido devotees: that when attacked, the skillful practitioner, who could easily annihilate his or her attacker, moves in such a way that not only is the attack neutralized, but the attacker realizes the error of his ways and turns from violence. I call this naive because, even though it is sometimes possible, it presupposes that one's attacker will always be far inferior in skill, and even more unlikely, that being humbled and even shamed by one far superior, an attacker is likely to undergo a profound change of personality.

A second concept is that of surgical violence, one particularly common among the Japanese right wing,whose ideology, in many ways, is closest to those of the warrior class in pre-modern Japan. This is best shown in the phrase, "One life to save a thousand," which is used to explain various political assassinations. In this concept, not only murder, but also inaction which allows war or other disaster to develop, would be setsuninto. Katsujinken would be to "cut the head off the snake" so the war could not start.

Some pseudo-Buddhist scholars of the sword imagine that there is a state of fluid perfection, called "enlightenment," in which one can act at each and every moment without reflection or doubt, the spontaneous act being the only one suitable to that particular moment. The enlightened one, then, could cut down an individual without murderous intention, in their intuitive all-encompassing understanding that the interpenetrating web of universe is best served that this individual die. The slaughtered one's life is culminated and, in fact, "demands" death at this moment to be properly fulfilled.

Whose life is preserved in katusjinken? One's own? The enemy's? Bystanders'? Whose life is taken in setsuninto? Is this a problem only of the moment, of the two individuals in conflict, or does it encompass all whose lives are touched by violence, by apparent evil? Is this a problem only of the present, or does it extend into the past and future? Are the reasons an enemy resorts to violence relevant to how you will resolve it? Are the potential results of alternative ways of resolving violence relevant to considerations of how one must act?

Sometimes I think I know the answers to these questions. At other times, I know that I have no idea.


There are houses, in the state of Washington, called Crisis Respite Centers. They are staffed by paraprofessionals skilled in dealing with troubled and aggressive youth. Children, usually teenagers, who are wards of the state and unplaceable in a foster home, are placed in these houses. The Crisis Respite Centers have a no-turn-down policy.

They also have unlocked doors. The six beds might be filled with three violent 16-year-old gang-involved youths from rival "sets," along with a "sexually reactive" developmentally-delayed girl, a chronic runaway 13-year-old, and an enormously irritating chubby 12-year-old boy who taunts the gangbangers and then runs to hide behind a staff member when one of them chases after him to squash him like a mosquito. The demands upon the staff, who have to ensure everyone's safety, are enormous.

I received a phone call early one morning from the director of a Crisis Respite Center. "Ellis, we have this kid here and we don't know what to do with him. He is threatening to staff and has a violent temper. He spent several years in Allister House (a facility for mentally disturbed kids), and it came out that he had been systematically raping the younger children, terrifying them so badly that it is sure that many have never told. He's in the foster-care system. He can't return home to his family, that's impossible; he was horribly abused there when he was young. We're concerned about him being here, and also, what kind of treatment he needs. He is a pretty scary kid, and it's hard to figure out what is intimidation and what is really dangerous. Would you come out and assess him?"

Much has been written over the millennia about the nature of evil. When does a man or woman step over a line, if such a line exists, where we are justified in no longer merely condemning their acts, but the person as well? When, if ever, is an evil act the manifestation of a corrupt soul, a voluntary embrace with evil?

I have met many violent young men and women over the years. They are often lazy. One boy said to me: "Crime is the easiest job there is." They often crave pack acceptance so much that whatever their friends are doing, they will also do, despite misgivings. They often have impaired judgment. They use drugs or alcohol, and their emotions are fueled, then, as much by chemicals as by anything innate to them. They often are people with a low tolerance for any sort of frustration. There is seemingly no space between desire and the act. There is a sense of entitlement: if I want it, then I deserve it. All of these traits, however, are merely an accentuation of one or another of the more venal characteristics of all humanity. Such a person is not someone to trust, or even to like, but they are not incomprehensible. They are of the same breed as we are.

There are some, however, who seem to have set as their life task to extinguish the painful demands of conscience. At the same time, some of these people take sadistic delight in the pain of others. There is some research that suggests a capacity to distance oneself from the trauma of violence, particularly the trauma incurred when inflicting violence, is, in part, hard-wired genetics. There are people born to be comfortable with violence.

There is also research that indicates that severe trauma, particularly early in childhood, leads to unpredictable neurological changes--some children develop into timid and fearful adults, others are resilient and compassionate. Yet others are exploitative, manipulative or even further--feral conscienceless beings who have seemingly disappeared from the community of men and women. For them, other people are objects of use that move in and out of their field of perception. Their capacity to form attachments to others is minimal or even absent. When contact with another human being engenders a feeling of sensitivity or vulnerability, their reaction is often a deep and profound pain, the pain felt by the exile upon tasting the scent of home on the wind, a pain so deep that they may respond by trying to extinguish that which causes the feeling, which is usually the capacity for sensitivity, or even, in the most extreme cases, the human being who evokes the response.

No one really knows how or why some people migrate to that dark star, leaving the world of love and conscience behind. Most criminals have a capacity, to some degree, to turn compassion and empathy on and off. Others can feel it to a limited degree, but only for people within their circle. In the course of a wide-ranging conversation, I once told a young man in jail about the sense of violation I felt in having my house robbed. His brow wrinkled in sympathy, and he said, spontaneously, "Yeah, it's like someone rapes you or something." He was, as best as I could tell, outraged for me--and he was a burglar!

There are, then, a few people, who have schooled themselves to have no openings, no vulnerabilities whatsoever, to respond with detachment to what they feel they have to do or want to do. If that sounds dangerously close to the image we have of the warrior, good! It's food for thought isn't it?


I was already sitting in the room, waiting for him when he came in. He was a boy of wire and bone, narrow features with startlingly full, sensual lips and dirty-blonde hair. The moment he saw me, he started whirling and kicking in self-made karate, kicks of surprising precision lashing out towards me. I don't know if this was merely an attempt to show that he was tough and I'd better keep my distance, or if, in the incredible intuition of the feral and predatory, he somehow "knew" that I was trained in martial arts. Predators often have intimate access to their fear as well as their rage and perhaps, in this manner, he intended to frighten me in return, thereby letting us start on "equal" terms.

I didn't move from my chair as his feet cut the air--he was careful not to kick too close. After a minute or two, I gestured towards a sofa, saying, "Why don't you sit down, Jared?"

He threw himself in a chair, slumped down, and said, "I've been training karate for seven years! One of these days, I'm going to tear someone up. Maybe one of these staff bitches," and as if jerked by an electric prod, leapt back to his feet, and shadow-boxed and kicked in the center of the room again. He looked at me with a kind of wired glee, prancing like an imp in the coals of a fire. At my request, he sat down again and slumped, torpid as a lizard on a rock. It was as if his immobility was as much an act of will as his movement--he never could be said to be relaxed.

We talked about the place he was staying, which he did not like, and his family, whom he idealized, despite their abuse and abandonment of him. He told me how tough he was, and how, despite our difference in size, how he was sure he could take me if he wanted to. He was like quicksilver--he never responded to my questions directly, skittering off in one tangent or another, attempting to keep me off balance with threats, complaints and silliness. He didn't care if I liked him or hated him or even if I remained alive for one more minute. I was just this "thing" he had to talk to.

I asked him about the well-substantiated reports of his rapes, and he smirked, and said, "Yeah, I did do that. But I'd never do it again."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because it's wrong," he said, making not even the slightest effort to place a tone of sincerity in his voice.

"I feel sorry for you, then," I said. This evoked a reaction--a flare of emotion emerging from behind the flat screen of his eyes; a fire banked.

"Why's that?" he asked.

I then said something that is not necessarily true, because sexual deviancy is far more complex, but I wished to find out who he was and hopefully, to evoke some truth from him. "Well, everybody knows that guys who like sex with little children can't have sex with people their own age. They just can't do it. So, if you aren't going to rape kids anymore, I guess you won't ever have sex with anyone your whole life. I feel sorry for you." At the last, my voice softened with compassion, which was real; despite my hatred of what he had done, he was still little more than a child, and I could feel sorry for him the same way I could for a brutalized pit bull, frightening and dangerous though it may be.

He rounded on me, angry. "I can too have sex with people my own age!" He said a few more sentences to "substantiate" this, but as he was talking, he picked up a teddy bear that was lying on the couch of the room, and unconsciously, with almost no visible effort, ripped its arms off. He noticed my eyes drop to his hands, and he looked down and saw what he had done.

He smiled at me, and his voice a lilting tone, said, "Aw, it's broke now." Then, placing the arms back to the body, "All fixed now!" Pulling them away, "Broke again." Back together. "Fixed again. Broke again. Fixed again. Brokeagainfixedagainbrokeagain. . . ." He stopped, and continued to smile as he unconcernedly cast the doll, arms and all, away from him onto the floor.

Our interview concluded soon afterwards. I had touched the core of pain from which he was trying so hard to distance himself. The result. Rage. I was sure that if he could have done so, he would have dismembered me just like the doll.

My recommendation was that he needed to start over somehow--to learn from the beginning how to act as a human being, to be placed in a dependent situation so that he would have to bond to caregivers like a small child. He would have to somehow be placed in a restricted 24-hour setting which would, at least, teach him that his own best interests lay in "acting" like other people. A few such programs exist, and based on this recommendation, he was placed in one.

He lasted six months. As intensive a procedure as it sounds, the person has to have a fundamental desire to return to humanity, in the same way that an addict must have a bone-aching desire to stop using drugs if treatment is to have any effect. "Returning" means to experience all the pain that one shut down in becoming a conscienceless being. Jared did not have the courage for this anymore. He had already embraced the cold reptilian safety of solitary hatred and pure self-interest. He physically assaulted staff and other youth, and was expelled. His parting words were, "I was born to rape, and there's nothing anyone can do about it."

Because of the way the laws are written, by destroying his placement in this secure facility, he was returned to the care of the foster-care system--his "parents," who were not mandated to lock him up. Once again, he went back to the same Crisis Respite Center.

He was there only a week or so when he exploded with rage towards the staff at being required to pick up some clothes. He kicked a hole in the wall, and trashed the furniture. As they called the police, Jared ran out the door with two women staff in hot pursuit. Young and lithe, he left them behind, and entered a school ground, coming upon two young 12-year-old girls. He dove upon one of them, and in broad daylight, in the middle of a sidewalk, began to rape her. Only a few moments later, the staff found him and managed to pull him off.

Aged 16, he was tried as an adult, and will be doing, I believe, 15 years in prison.

Several months later, before his sentencing, I saw him in detention from a distance. Although in the open recreation hall, he was isolated from the other boys, not because of his crime, but due to his demeanor, coiled within himself in bands of hatred. After years in the gladiator schools of our modern penal system, God help us all when he gets out.

The philosopher Derrida refers to the "community of the question." All of us who live in the martial world, either through our profession or through our avocation in combative arts, face similar questions when it comes to the responsibility we incur through our acquisition of power. So I ask the following question, not to get any answers from you, but perhaps to evoke the question within you:

Am I a moral failure in that I did not kill him?

When I interviewed that boy, I knew what he was capable of doing. I had no expectation that treatment would help him, but that was the best suggestion I could come up with. I knew he would, sooner or later, do something horrible to some poor child.

Is it my responsibility merely to offer therapy to those I can, teach as many people as I can how to protect themselves from violence, saving myself to raise my sons, saving myself, therefore, from the consequences of what I knew was going to happen?

I could have saved the child he raped an unimaginable world of pain, and probably other children, too, when he finally gets out of prison. Were you to hear that I had killed him, solely based on my intuition and assessment, what would be your reaction?

My own answer to this question is the choice I made, but I will be haunted until my death at the thought of that child, her flesh ground into a sidewalk, the sun beating down upon her pain, indifferent as the flat, shark eyes of her rapist.

What, then, is the sword that gives life?


Copyright ©2000 Ellis Amdur. All rights reserved.

Ellis Amdur is the author of Dueling with O-sensei: Grappling with the Myth of the Warrior-Sage and Old School: Essays on Japanese Martial Traditions.


Classical Japanese Martial Arts
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Classical Japanese Martial Arts