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Basic Concepts

Traditional martial arts philosophies contain certain basic concepts that influence the student's training. These have to do with 1) the purpose of martial arts, 2) the concept of human character and 3) views concerning ethical and moral behavior.

A. Purpose of Martial Arts

hree basic purposes for training in the traditional martial arts are readily discernible. The first is self-defense; the second, health improvement; and the third, spiritual discipline.

1. Self-Defense

Traditionally, the primary purpose of the martial arts has been for physical self-defense. The founders of the martial arts regarded the body as the temple of the spirit, which needed to be defended against unscrupulous characters who might take advantage of the peaceful nature of the more innocent and pure. As explained above, this was the initial motivating factor behind the adoption of martial arts training into the lifestyle of the monks at Shaolin Temple. Ever since, as we have briefly discussed, various styles and techniques have been developed in response to situations of military aggression. This has been the external motivating factor behind the development of martial arts.

Generally speaking, there are two sorts of self-defense: the hard or linear way and the soft or circular way. In the linear form one uses arms and legs to block a strike of the opponent. The advantage is that there is a direct counter-threat, which results in pain for the opponent. The disadvantage is that this method requires a lot of power. In the circular form the power and speed of the opponent is neutralized by using circular movements. The advantage is that one can neutralize one's opponent without hurting him and that little strength is required. The disadvantage is that it takes a lot of skill and practice to come to the necessary level. Most martial artists use a combination of both.

2. Health Improvement

Another reason for the development of martial arts is linked to the desire of human beings to be in good health. Here the martial artist is concerned not simply with physical protection but is willing to undergo discipline, austerity, hardship and even physical suffering, for the sake of improving his overall state of health. The use of breathing techniques and various forms and styles help the body to achieve a state of internal harmony. For example, abdominal breathing, when coordinated with different movements, can help one to reach a state of reduced stress, relaxation and increased energy.

Most martial arts seek to help a person achieve a proper balance between mind and body, using a centered mind to direct the flow of energy (chi) within the body through well-coordinated movements. Practitioners of t'ai chi chuan, for example, focus the mind upon a set sequence of precise slow fluid movements involving the muscles and joints. This has been shown to reduce high blood pressure, stimulate cardiovascular activity and motor sensory coordination and increase the overall flexibility of the body. Due to its preventative and curative benefits, t'ai chi chuan traditionally has been taught in the Chinese school system.

3. Spiritual Discipline

A true martial artist is concerned not only with his physical state, but ultimately with purifying, developing, and elevating his character. The discipline, austerity and hardship of martial arts training serve to subjugate the body and strengthen the spirit so that one can come to gain dominion over oneself. Corporeal desires must be subjugated if a person is to be able to achieve a state of inner peace and tranquility and become a person of moral character. Studies show that martial arts practitioners tend to have lower levels of anxiety, an increased sense of responsibility, and higher levels of self-esteem.

At the highest level, martial arts training takes one beyond a concern simply for personal achievement into the realm of concern for the happiness and well being of others. This concern involves the outward extension of the heart to the point where one's sense of priority changes from concern for the self to concern for others. At this point the individual is capable of choosing to make spiritual and physical sacrifices for the sake of others because he experiences a deeper joy in the act of extending himself for them. The traditional philosophies underlying the martial arts (explained in more detail below) support this concept of self-sacrifice. Confucian philosophy spoke of five directions of self-sacrifice: for one's ruler, parents, spouse, friends and siblings. Korean Hwarangdo philosophy promoted self-sacrifice for the well being of the nation. Japanese Bushido promoted self-sacrifice for the sake of one's lord.

B. View of Human Character

1. Perfectibility

There is an idealistic impulse behind the notion of self-sacrifice. This is the belief in the ultimate perfectibility of human character. At the same time the concerns with self-perfection and self-sacrifice imply a current imperfection and a disinclination toward sacrifice rooted within the human character. The religions of the world offer different explanations for this.

According to Judeo-Christian and Muslim teachings, humans are "fallen" beings who are inclined to sin while according to Oriental views they are either separated from reality or ignorant of it. Despite this negative assessment of the state of human beings, many traditional views concur that man is not beyond hope because he is inherently good. Mencius, the great disciple of Confucius, made a poignant observation concerning man's inherent goodness. He likened human character to a denuded mountain that had been beautiful in its original state. But with the inroads of civilization, the lush mountainside was stripped of its foliage and rendered unsightly. Mencius said that this is analogous to man's situation: like this mountain, human character has been corrupted by society, although in fact it is originally good. Such a view is reflective not only of some Asian observations about human character but also of viewpoints of other cultures. In the West Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance, held that human beings were originally "noble savages" who were corrupted by civilization.

However we consider humans, whether as ignorant, corrupted or sinful, traditional martial arts philosophies believe that they are accessible to redemption through discipline, education and training. The view that man is evil beyond hope is antithetical to most philosophies of martial arts, which promote self-perfection as both desirable and achievable.

2. Desire and Suffering

Another fundamental concept concerning human character in the traditional martial arts is related to the Buddhist idea that desire is the cause of suffering. According to the "Four Noble Truths" that Buddha taught, human desire is the cause of suffering because it is insatiable: no matter how much we seek to satisfy it, it is never enough. According to Buddhism, desire leads a person into an increasingly downward spiral, which results in more suffering through repeated reincarnations into this world. The only way to alleviate suffering is to achieve a state of desirelessness and, through this, to be liberated from the process of reincarnation. Boddhidarma taught meditation as the antidote to this unhappy situation. The state of selflessness and desirelessness that this promotes has been a primary goal of all Zen-based Do, including the martial arts. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the connection between physical desire and inner suffering is depicted in the struggles of David, Samson, St. Paul, St. Augustine and many others.

Self-centered desire does indeed lead to suffering. Hence, martial art training tends to be strongly directed towards the discipline of desire and emotion. In this way, it is expected that the unselfish side of human character can be strengthened and the selfish side weakened or eliminated. Ultimately, man's "original" good nature can become the dominant part of his character.

C. Ethics and Morality

A third basic concept in traditional martial arts is that there are clear moral and ethical norms that are meant to govern human behavior. These norms, which we may also call universal values, when practiced, provide the basis for human virtue.

The values promoted by the martial arts are shaped by the philosophical views of the major Oriental religions. The teachings that are most directly connected with the martial arts are Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Shintoism (Japan) and Hwarangdo (Korea). In order to fully appreciate the important influence of these philosophies on the martial arts even today, we will summarize the ethical perspectives of each.

1. Basic Martial Arts Philosophies

The basic philosophies influencing all the martial arts have been Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.

Confucianism. Confucianism is one of the great roots of Oriental civilization. Its ethical and moral views are based upon the "Way of Heaven" which Confucius revered and which he endeavored to introduce into ancient China as a remedy to feudal chaos. This philosophy was said to be based on the teachings of five legendary kings who had discerned the laws that governed Heaven. Confucius argued that man's deviation from these laws was the fundamental cause of chaos in the world. To reverse this, he taught a strong social philosophy which explained hierarchical order and the duties of each position with respect to others. It is highly critical of those who are selfish and irresponsible. Confucius also stressed a strongly virtuous social ethic: "A youth when at home should practice filial piety: when abroad, fraternal love. He should be earnest and sincere, loving to all and fond of jen."

"Jen" means "human-heartedness" and in Confucian teaching is considered the greatest of all virtues. Confucius said: "'The man of jen is one who, wishing to sustain himself, sustains others, and wishing to develop himself, develops others." This virtue was to be demonstrated in social relationships since society was viewed as an extension of the family:

"Treat the aged in your family as they should be treated, and extend this treatment to the aged of other peoples' families. Treat the young in your family as they should be treated, and extend this treatment to the young of other peoples' families."

- Mencius I.A.7

Confucian ethics exercise a strong, all-pervasive influence on martial arts training. It dictates the proper relationship between seniors and juniors, especially between master and trainee. Its main characteristics are clear order and a strong sense of duty and responsibility.

Taoism. Taoism is another major root of Oriental civilization, but one that is quite different from Confucianism. Its founder Lao Tzu differed with many of the teachings of his contemporary Confucius. Denying any formal ethics based on Heaven, Lao Tzu stressed a flexible, unstructured attitude based on the yielding ways of nature. His insights about this caused him to advocate an ethic of harmony through non-aggressiveness. These ideas contributed greatly to the martial arts, especially to those generally characterized as "soft" or "circular".

Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism promotes a strict ethics and morality, which reflects its concern with the attainment of selflessness. Since it identifies desire as the cause of suffering, Buddhism stresses a tradition of purity, austerity, celibacy, service, mercy, obedience, self-control and self-denial in order to eliminate desire. Boddhidarma taught the Shaolin monks kempo along with these values and thereby created a tradition of discipline for martial arts that still applies today. It is said that Shaolin students had to pass oral and written exams in Buddhism as well as mastering kempo in order to become full-fledged monks.

2. Philosophies Influencing Japanese Martial Arts

Shintoism. Shintoism is an indigenous faith of the Japanese people. Like other Asian nations, Japan was exposed to Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Shintoism allowed the Japanese to express their own native values in addition to those of these systems.

Shintoism shared many of the values of the other three. However, it went beyond Confucianism by placing even greater emphasis on hierarchical relationships. It taught that the nation's ruler was lineally descended from Heaven, thus making loyalty to the emperor the equivalent of loyalty to the gods (kami). The reward of loyalty was honor, and the fruit of honor was a sense of value and fulfillment. Signifying this, the greatest mark of honor for the samurai warrior was to receive a sword from his lord. This necessitated the attainment of selflessness through Zen and extreme loyalty, obedience and courage. A central social virtue in Shintoism was "roundedness" (makoto). This referred to personal harmony that extended to interpersonal sincerity.

Bushido and Budo. If honor was lost for any reason, it could be recovered through a ritual ceremony (hara kiri) in which the repentant samurai used his own sword to commit suicide. This severe atonement was necessary to save the samurai's family from dishonor. The legacy of such a radical verticality is the martial arts philosophy of bushido ("warrior's code"). In more recent peaceful times, in which field combat skills have fallen into disuse, bushido was transformed into budo by masters who were concerned that Japan would become spiritually lax if the martial spirit was not somehow preserved. Budo refers to the "way" of the warrior. It is more educational in nature, aimed at character development rather than at combat effectiveness exclusively. A prime example of this trend was the refinement of jujutsu into judo, the "gentle way", spoken of above.

3. Philosophies Influencing Korean Martial Arts

Hwarangdo. A Korean philosophy that has been especially significant for the martial arts is that of Hwarangdo, which means "Flowering Youth" society. Hwarangdo originated around the eighth century A.D. This was a specially trained military society of youth from noble families, created to defend the vulnerable Korean peninsula in case of invasion. These youth were to be model citizens and were therefore highly educated by the best teachers. They prayed, lived and trained in the rugged mountains, were filial and obedient to their parents, passionately loyal to the king and nation and believed that they were specially anointed by Heaven. It is said that they prayed long and fervently before battle. Such training bred the Hwarangdo into fierce fighters.

Chondogyoism. Chondogyoism is an indigenous Korean teaching. Like Japan, Korea's civilization was heavily influenced by the values of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Chondogyoism developed as an indigenous system more recently and has been uniquely shaped by the Korean people's experience with democracy and Christianity. Thus, the Chondogyo value system adds to traditional Oriental religion the notions of human equality under God and a powerful sense of anti-colonialism, national pride and patriotism.

These brief summaries illustrate the point that Oriental religions and philosophies have had a strong impact on the martial arts. Together, the three basic concepts of martial arts philosophy as discussed above (the purpose of martial arts, its concept of human character, and its moral and ethical views) are important matters of which the serious martial arts practitioner should be aware. Students should understand that, by submitting themselves to training in the martial arts, they are connecting to an ancient tradition of fervent dedication to skills and ideals. In order to both maintain and extend this tradition, a study of both technique and philosophy is necessary.