“The craft of the warrior and his Way is the only thing that deals directly with physical living and physical dying.”
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
When we say "martial art," what does that mean? We use it as if there is an agreed upon delineation, yet if you ask five different people, you'll get five different answers. It's a loose term, encompassing kung fu to Greek pankration. The West defines it as a system of combat. "Martial art" itself is a Western term, named after Mars, the god of war. The spiritual practices of the East were unrelated to Mars nor were they even aware of that particular belief system. They were meditations on the Way or Tao (Dao or Do), represented in their names (karate-do, taekwondo, judo). Kung fu is not the name of any particular art; it's a type of practice. It meant any study, discipline, or practice that required patience, energy, and time to complete. Then consider kung fu a form of craft and the conflicts within the martial arts as a call for skillful balance.
Martial art is in the mess, within the small spaces — where few are willing to tread. When pinned, a smaller artist can use physical gaps to stand back up. A small amount of space is all that is needed to strike a foe to the ground. The art is in filling the gaps for equilibrium. Where others shrink from the discomfort of obstacles, the artist will rise.
When engaging with daily life, you may come across unnatural gaps. Question them. Can they too be filled with physical striving and the lessons learned in the arena? That is the condition for martial philosophy. (If you are already at peace and your spirit is hearty, then none of this is prescriptive.)
A Philosophy for the Good Life
The dojo, dojang, dàochǎng, translates into the "place of the Way." Alternatively, it can also mean the "hall of repetition," whether it's chants, prayers, or physical discipline. Initially, all dojos were adjunct to spiritual temples. Even today, "dojo" is the term used by Zen Buddhists for their hall of meditation. In Sanskrit "dojo" means the "seat of wisdom," it also means "presence." A place to teach wisdom to ready the student for the dojo known as life and the final dojo known as death.
If studied properly, beyond stylized combat, there is a guide for the meaningful life waiting for the willing. All philosophies and religions essentially came from one thought: "One day, we will die. Then what?" Martial arts are no different, but it does not only ask how we should live if we one day die but how should we live if we know we're capable of ending another's life? Without a philosophy — if we lapse into our animalistic urges — you can imagine how terribly this could go (and has gone).
Bite-sized answers are sufficient for trivial pursuits, but for long-term spiritual growth, there are only questions. The great thinkers (like Socrates) came to this conclusion, "I know that I know nothing."
Being told how to think provides comfort. It's straightforward. But it also robs us of the experience of reflection and exploration. To be more than an 8-bit character in a video game — predictable with limited options — we must be willing to go into the realm of the uncharted. We mustn't shrink from the challenge.
Monks and martial artists began meditating during a time when humans were free-range. Constant movement was a necessity and discipline was needed to sit still in a fixed position. The focus was on the self because our lives were relative to the community. We stilled our bodies to move our minds. The tree that falls in the forest makes no sound when no one is there to acknowledge it. All things are interconnected. If taken into context, the purpose of meditation was to bring the practitioner to balance. It is what was needed at the time.
Today, the human animal is hardly recognizable. The design of our lives is to sit still in a fixed position and think about ourselves. The tree that falls in the forest makes a sound even though no one is there to acknowledge it. We are individuals and our existences are separate and unique from one another. All things are disconnected. Then what brings equilibrium during a time of physical stillness is distinct from a time of movement. Our still bodies make our minds frantic. Then what is needed is free movement and light: getting winded, spending time outside and absorbing the natural world, reconnecting with one another, playfulness, freedom, and being present in our environment. We must move our bodies to still our minds.
"Kaizen" (改善) in Chinese and Japanese means "change for the better." Ancient words represent more than names: they are sets of belief. Kaizen is the philosophy of continuous improvement. In contemporary life, we focus on goals, achievements, and completion. But in the broader spectrum, there is no done. Done is irrelevant; we can build a hospital in Africa, which we have done many times. The building may be complete, yet the work of aid and helping the downtrodden is never done. We see life as point A to point B, but if we look beyond the horizon, we are a transient portion of an infinite universe. Infinity has no end; there is only middle. Then what matters is doing the middle parts, the process of doing and doing it well. If we are to be done, then nothing needs improvement. Kaizen is the belief that life continues, with or without us. Then we should leave it better than how we found it. That is the Way.
"Go with the flow" is the piece of debris, floating wherever the currents take it. Don't rock the boat. When thrown, go with it. There is no craft in this. "Flow with the go" is the martial artist's mindset. It requires skill. Be the surfer, develop an ability to ride the currents and maneuver yourself — maintaining control under chaos. When others are frenzied, rather than allowing "flow" to happen to you, conjure your own "flow" mindstate. Don't go with the throw, redirect your opponent's throw to take them off their feet. This level of "mushin," as it's called in Zen, takes dedication. Just as the mechanics of a punch is practiced, so is the responsive mind. Often the physical works as a metaphor for the mental. This perception becomes clearer as our minds adjust to symbolic reasoning.
Rather than wasting energy when life brings aggression, conserve your energy and use the momentum before you. Ride it as far as you can. A punching bag mindlessly obeys; an artist of life reserves a quiet strength that cannot be quantified. One cannot see where the artist's power comes from, in fact, it's not a type of force we are used to. It does not come from tension; it comes from grace. It does not try to overpower a wave nor does it succumb. It does not add to conflict, it stays ahead of it — or it perishes. The artist learns to use external force like musical notes and turns it into symphony.
Accidentally Stepping Into Truth
We accidentally stumble upon this state during the middle of a movement. Present in what we are doing, the volume of everything else drops to zero. Everything slows down, we see everything. We aren't distracted. We are here. When this happens, we aren't still. We are urgently living and using our bodies to experience life.
Mushin is the no-self. We may call this: losing ourselves in the moment.
In ancient times, life was more service, sacrifice, and selflessness. Self-realization was radical and foreign. Now the self is familiar. Now there is a hyper-focus on personal identity. What is alien is seeing how to fit into, and how our actions relate to broader society. When we think of health, we think of ourselves and not the health of the public. It is no longer apparent how to think about community and culture, but community and culture have transcended into the global. The need is even greater.
If our problem then was too much emphasis on the herd, our problem now is too much emphasis on ourselves — which divides the herd. Rather than authenticity, we want to be better than others. From school, media, to two-cent advice, the cliché is that this is the best way to think. The thinkers of antiquity would have difficulty imagining the problems of today's world. There was no "me vs the world," it was only "me and the world." (Remember, much of philosophical wisdom came before the Age of Enlightenment and all the reformations. Individualism was still an abstract thought, possibly even a nonexistent one. Even today, in the East, identity is still mostly collective. This contrast is one of many reasons why there was never an agreement between the East and West on what a "martial art" is. It is quite normal to gather hundreds of martial artists in the East to do martial art forms in unison, the emphasis on group achievement. In the West, individual achievements are stressed, with a focus on competitions that crown one champion.)
During times of collectivism, individualism is needed for balance. During periods of individualism, it is collectivism that brings us symmetry. Remove the layers and at its essence is not meditation, it is stability and the best methods to continuously reach it.
Projecting to Confirm Our Biases
Do we interpret the past through present-day attitudes? That is presentism and it may have us believe the sages of the past would condone our behaviors of today. If our greatest interest is ourselves, we will naturally be drawn to messages claiming that the focus on the self will bring happiness — using old societal virtues for modern self-help. Believing ancient methods are meant to serve the individual, to justify our wants, to take more than we leave behind. Self-interests are fine, but what of interest in the generation after?
We look for truths that reflect our own truths. How convenient to think everything agrees with what we already believe. Our way is reaffirming our beliefs, creating echo chambers and cultish mindsets. That is a life out of sorts and can lead one down a dangerous path of apathy, self-loathing, and sociopathy (a complete lack of empathy). Symmetry requires us to challenge the ways we think, reevaluating our default assumptions — to balance our thoughts with something else. That is the Way.
But perhaps there was at least one figure who had enough foresight to see the possible problems of today. Bodhidharma was a fifth century Buddhist monk from India who traveled to China to spread what is now known as Zen Buddhism. When he arrived, he found that the monks of the temples were unfit and too sedentary. He added the physical back to the spiritual-intellectual, and that became Shaolin kung fu. From there spawned the majority of Eastern martial arts. What Bodhidharma recognized was a dangerous lack of harmony. The monks had embraced stillness at the cost of movement; a connection with the self at a disconnection from the world. Rather than moving mindlessly, Bodhidharma created a system that combined movement with attention. If meditation finds the self, martial art masters the self. Mindfulness from the seat out into the world.
Buddha was a trained wrestler. Socrates was a renowned grappler, as was Aristotle, Seneca, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, and the sundry. There were no philosophers, only warrior-philosophers. One could not physically exist without the other. Civility and modern decorum did not yet exist. There was no convergence of thinking and being, but rather a divorce. We disconnected what was once inseparable because we have become a culture where we believe there is no consequence to taking the things we like and leaving the things we don't. "I'll take these physical things and leave the rest.", "I'll take these intellectual things and leave the rest." It has become a disorganized and unfruitful salad bar; where we see dependent pieces of age-old architecture as independent and arbitrarily pluck pieces, then are baffled when the structure collapses.
The majority of the understanding we have of the world came from people who could not separate intellectualism from their physicality; the intellect rose from the physical. Critical thinking and martial arts went hand-in-hand, like yin-yang once did. This makes sense, proof came from the experiences of the body. Our bodies were the microscopes that gave birth to reason. Rather than believing these categories and identities have always been this way, like Bodhidharma, to bring harmony, we must remarry these disciplines to form the Way. This intrinsic need for harmony is why many of us took up the martial arts in the first place. This is why some lifelong martial artists find their way to philosophy.
Study and deeply reflect. Don't merely accumulate quotes and ideas without context. Study so you may see beyond what the teachers did but what the teachers meant. What was their purpose? Practices and methods must be relevant to the times. They must be carefully improved upon. Then a martial artist must remain supple. Goals are an expression of purpose and are constantly being redefined. Goals in themselves can be limiting, especially as things change. Our purpose anchors us to shore. Hold tight to purpose so we can adapt to the changes. Adjust.
It started with humility and character, now our energies go into appearance and materialism. Self-admiration is not a philosophy; philosophy cautioned against it. Paradoxically, we seek mindfulness to help with our diets. Yoga to improve our figures. Zen to be hot. Stoicism to chisel our abs. Martial arts to vanquish those we don't like. We change the lessons to match our material wants, rather than matching our wants to the teachings. Unable to reach parity, we keep searching. We identify with the search rather than equanimity. What we seek is incoherent. Finding more of it only brings about more confusion. There is uncertainty when there is no uniformity. We have too many ways when there need only be one Way. This state separates us from the good life.
What we have forgotten or perhaps never been taught is, the sole purpose of meditation or any spiritual practice is to find the self, then destroy it. To let go of the self and all its desires. Something must have gotten lost in translation or we have projected our desires onto the translation because rather than throwing the self away like worn clothes, we worship it. We wear it out, tatter it into shreds, judge it, then venerate it some more and wonder why it's never good enough. Our solutions are the problems. The journey of self-discovery is not the end goal, then it becomes dangerous, you must go further, past the self into the world. To do that, you must let it go. That is the no-self. The martial arts kata must be mindful, your opponent is the self, the purpose is to destroy the self and reach peace. Meditation must be mindful, the obstacle is your self, your purpose is to silence the self and reach peace. Do not lose this purpose or peace will always elude you. It is not about adding more positives, that is like masking excrements with a little ice cream, you only get more excrements. The joy of peace comes from the elimination of the excrements, the subtraction is the Way. We energize not when the volume of things we like goes up, it is when the volume of everything else other than the peace of now goes down. Whether we focus on good noise (pleasures) or bad noise (pleasures), what we need is the opposite, we need silence.
Positive or negative, often it's still distractive and obsessive. Like positive and negative reinforcement can both be micromanagement.
Many of these concepts, you may have heard before but ignored. Or perhaps, you heard it, but you also heard contradictory thoughts and told yourself you could have it all. And in that attempt to combine all that is contradictory, is why you will get lost. Too many ways, that is uncertainty, and what we know is that humans will fear uncertainty more than death. They will die for the sake of certainty. The Way means you are never lost. To quote Buckaroo Banzai:
What we consider important are social constructs — they can bend and flex. Then we have the ability to shift what is important back to the meaningful and away from the material.
The Seat of Wisdom
From watching a person walk, I can see all their weaknesses. I learned this from asking myself, "What would be the quickest way to defeat this person?" Then I began to observe whether a person walked unevenly, "Perhaps they have a bad ankle or knee." One shoulder is higher than the other, "They will be limited on that side." They twist with their body, not their neck, "They have a previous injury." Their posture lacks presence, "They will wilt under pressure." If my intent was to hurt or injure, these observations are necessary. If my intent was to heal or ease, these observations are also necessary. The knowledge to kill is needed to save the living. We must learn to embrace this duality. Avoiding these thoughts can avoid the wrong, but this also prevents the right. To build the mightiest wall, one must first ask, "What's wrong with the walls we already have?"
Here are my weaknesses, what do I do? Here are your weaknesses, what do I do? These are questions martial arts train to answer. A philosophy of inquiry and a philosophy of virtues. (Whether the art is Eastern or Western, it begins and ends with a sign of courtesy and respect. These are virtues.) A balancing of ways until there is only one Way. Succumb to one view and lifetimes of suffering awaits.
The Way Is Responsiveness
The martial artist is slow and fast, heavy and light, simple and complex. The Way is not fixed, it is fluid. We can make big decisions quickly or spend days pleasantly lost in thought. This is the essence of yin-yang. We divide them into two opposing classifications and have them compete (yin vs yang) rather than integrate (being it rather than having it). They are halves of one word and one concept (yin-yang). Separate them and they have a different meaning (e.g., light and darkness vs light with darkness). We will miss that we are still speaking of the same continuum. Then how can we ever master balance?
The value of the center constantly changes, learning to flow with these changes is the Way. Every moment, awake and responsive. Doing what is needed at the right time, when what is needed is ever-evolving.
Yin-yang, responsiveness, action-reaction, playing out every day in the universe. There is always the same amount of matter, what changes is the distribution. The Way seeks to understand those distributions, not once, but steadily. Martial arts differ from other esoteric philosophical pursuits because they emphasize the objective. Feedback is physical. A black eye is a black eye. We learn through the senses. We learn through experience. Martial art trains the senses. Philosophy brings clarity to sensory knowledge. Then there is no philosophy that cannot benefit from martial arts. Then there is no martial art that cannot benefit from philosophy.
The martial art is a daily code of behavior, grounded in reality and applicable to any environment. The warrior and the tea master are one and the same, masters of inner tranquility. The "enlightened" abandons the selfish belief that what's true for them is true for the universe. Instead, they observe the world and align their views to what's true for the world. One that is rigid changes the lesson. One that is flexible adjusts themselves to the lesson. Though we love hearing about ourselves and the "Tao of me," in a universe that is infinite and ever expanding, we are quite small. But we can connect to something much greater than ourselves. Then in an abstract way, there is no "me" or "you." There is only the Way. That is what fills the gaps.
No one's life ever gets worse studying the Way of martial arts.
Useful Companions to This Article:
- The Book of Five Rings - Miyamoto Musashi
- Karate-Do: My Way of Life - Gichin Funakoshi
- The Tao of Pooh - Benjamin Hoff
- The Way of Chuang Tzu - Thomas Merton
- Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action - Simon Sinek
- Letters from a Stoic - Lucius Annaeus Seneca
- Bruce Lee: Artist of Life - Bruce Lee, John Little
- On the Warrior's Path: Philosophy, Fighting, and Martial Arts Mythology - Daniele Bolelli
- Martial Arts and Philosophy: Beating and Nothingness - Graham Priest, Damon A. Young
- Zen in the Art of Archery - Eugen Herrigel
- The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng - Red Pine