Martial Arts on the Spiritual Path
By Scott Shaw
People on the spiritual path commonly ask me how could I be involved in something so seemingly violent as the martial arts. Martial artists continually ask me why do I place such an emphasis on spirituality. Though these two venues seem worlds apart, they are, in fact, closely inter-linked.
For those of us who are old enough to remember the 1970’s television series, “Kung Fu,” where Kwai Chang Cane, a Shao Lin monk, was living in the Old West and continually flashing back to the lessons he learned while living at the Shao Lin Temple, we were presented with a standard whereby the average individual could sense a correlation and seeming necessity for even the most spiritual of persons using hand-to-hand combat. Though this television series was a theatrical presentation and historically inaccurate, it did define that there has long been martial artists in Asia who have been closely linked to their spirituality.
First of all, however, it must be defined that every individual or martial arts practitioner who lives or comes from Asia is not necessarily an enlightened being. This is one of the common pitfalls many westerners fall into believing when they go to train in the martial arts. They think simply because a person hails from Asia they somehow know more, are more, and should be universally revered as such.
Throughout Asia, just as in the West, there are those individuals who are drawn to the spiritual path and embrace it. And, just like in the West, there are far more people who only care about self, wealth, personal prestige, and couldn't care less about spirituality — though due to their geographical upbringing they oftentimes have picked up more facts about eastern religion than is commonly possessed by a Westerner.
This being stated, due to the fact that the origin of the martial arts was based in Asia, eastern religion came to be the philosophy adhered to by the spiritually inclined practitioner of these systems of self-defense. As such, it was eastern religion that came to be the defining factor of the spiritual basis for the martial arts.
An important factor to keep in mind when considering the link between martial arts and spirituality is that the two predominate religions which came to directly influence the martial arts are Taoism and Buddhism. Both of these philosophies are intrinsically defined with a deeply meditative and metaphysical process of thought. Religions of the West, such as Christianity and Judaism, though no less viable conduits of faith, are not delineated by these characteristics. An example of this is that they do not commonly send the practitioner down the road of attempting to loose the Personal Self in order to gain a glimpse of the Cosmic Whole.
As the martial arts have continued to evolve throughout the centuries, so too have the various sects which make up Taoism and Buddhism. To this end, as time has progress some schools of the Chinese and Japanese martial arts have come to be keenly linked to their various philosophic traditions. Certainly, such arts as Tai Chi, through in actually a martial arts based on physical deflections, punching and kicking, is now seen as an essential form of movement meditation. This is no less the case with such Japanese systems of martial arts as Iaido, where a practitioner draws his sword in an exacting manner, delivers a precisely orchestrated technique, and then returns the sword to its sheath in a definitively meditative manner.
From these two illustrations we can see the martial arts do not have to solely be a method to kick butt. They can be a means for the body and mind to move into a state of exacting harmony, whereby the practitioner is removed from the constraints of physical existence and may gain a glimpse of meditative consciousness.
Though the martial arts are based in techniques of physical confrontation, that does not have to be their ending point. They can become something much-much more.
One of the key problems embraced by the modern martial artist is the fact that they are taught in their martial art schools to live their life from a very competitive perspective. They are taught to believe that their style, their instructor, and, in fact, they are the best at what they do. What this causes, as can be noted by anyone who has been involved in the martial arts for any length of time, is the fact that there is an enormous amount of back stabbing, criticizing, and a general sense of hypocrisy going on among practitioners from differing styles or schools. What this leads to is a life embraced by competition that is completely absent from peace.
If you live your life at the level of constantly seeking confrontation, attempting to find a reason to battle with the hopes of overpowering or defeating anyone or everyone, for whatever reason, you are forced to live your life from a very animistic perspective. And, like I have long said, just like the gun fighters of the Old West, there will always be somebody faster. Eventually you will be defeated.
To the person who lives their life at this level, they are constantly being engaged in confrontations and battles that are finding them out of the blue. Why? Because they are projecting a sense of confrontation to the universe — what you sew is what you reap.
Though the modern martial arts commonly breeds this style of aggressive, competitive mindset, this does not have to be the case. Just as the practitioners of Tai Chi or Iaido have proven, the martial arts can be a great source of movement meditation — where there is no need for conflict.
The essential thing to remember is that the essence of movement meditation is not defined by what style of martial arts you practice — though, obviously, certain styles are more open to having a students become meditative in their movements than others. None-the-less, it is you who possess the ability to raise your martial arts to the level where something more than physical or mental conflict is embraced.
From the martial arts you learn to protect yourself if the need arises. But, fighting does not have to be the end point of your training.
If you are not seeking unnecessary conflict, you are not tracked down by it. If you are living your life embracing the glory of your existence, by whatever religious or philosophic criteria you choose, you will not be bound by the limitations of other martial artists you encounter that are hell bend on making themselves appear to be bigger, better, or more by whatever title, award, lie, or punch they possess. If you live your life from a focus of consciousness, you can transcend the limitations of any situation you encounter. This will naturally occur not by fighting your way out, but by experience all of life from a state of universal understanding.
Are the martial arts violent? Only if you let them be.
Copyright © 1996 — All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used without the expressed permission of Scott Shaw or his representatives.