Philosophy and the Martial Arts

by Seamus Mulholland

From Bruce Lee in the early 70s starting us all off on the Martial Arts craze, to the spectacular Kung Fu fight scenes of The Matrix films, to the beautiful dialogue, photography and mysticism of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and now to the Manga bloodfest of Taratino’s ‘Kill Bill Vol. I’, the Martial Arts have been around in the West for a long time. I have been practising and training in Martial Arts for over 30 years and in that time I have learned much, not simply about Martial Arts as self-defence techniques, but about the ‘ground of its being’ and the ethics and aesthetics that underlie it.

It is usual to make the assumption that since the Martial Arts emerged in the east, they must carry with them some of the mysticism that goes with all things oriental (at least to a Western mind), and that they are deeply rooted in Zen Buddhist philosophy — at least if the breathtaking spectacularity of the Shaolin Monks is anything to go by. It is true that there is a different conception in the west of what underlies the Martial Arts in what we may broadly call a ‘philosophical’ way. But does the Martial Arts have a ‘philosophy’ in its own right? If we take philosophy in its literal translation from Greek ‘love of wisdom’ then the answer is a resounding yes, if we take the term philosophy as it is understood in the perennial philosophy of the West, then the answer is no.

Philosophy exists for many things: to understand the world, to comprehend things as they are in themselves, to detect errors in thought, to offer a solution to fundamental questions that beset humanity and so on. However, if we take the original translation ‘love of wisdom’ and apply it to the Martial Arts, and place the emphasis on the word wisdom, then Martial Arts has a rich, deep, and profound philosophy inherent in it.

The Martial Arts at the surface level are about learning those physical techniques that ensure our personal safety through acquiring the ability to defend ourselves against attackers and also to achieve some very remarkable feats of physical prowess (many people generally associate this with breaking things — ‘tameshiriwara’ is the proper term for it. But in modern study of Martial Arts that is ‘old hat’, (as Mr, Miayagi says in ‘The Karate Kid’ movie, ‘Bricks don’t hit back’.) Unfortunately, in the 30 odd years I have been studying the Martial Arts, I have never been be able to pause in mid-air, or stand on the branch of a tree — but isn’t it wonderful cinema!!!. But what I have discovered in Martial Arts training and teaching, is that there is an understanding of the fundamentals of the human condition. This is why most practitioners of Martial Arts will say that they study a ‘do’ (doh), a ‘Way’, that it is not simply the physical techniques that they study and train hard in, but the Way of the Martial Arts.

In this sense, the Martial Arts as a Way (and Paul, for example, referred to Christianity as the Way, the ancient Chinese speak of the ‘dao’ the Way) of being in the world, and perceiving and reflecting on the world is as valid a way as Western analytical philosophy. Where western philosophy seeks to understand life by intellectual and analytical reflection and comprehension, the Martial Arts as a ‘way’ seeks to understand by living. So it is that the Way of Martial Arts as a philosophical discipline is about understanding the truth and the reality of life as it is by living it.

Of course the fanciful esotericism that is imposed upon it by the West is out of place. There is only one Martial Art that is closely associated with a pure philosophical way of being in the world, and that is Kyudo — the Art of the Japanese Bow (Archery), but the more traditionally understood Martial Arts, karate, judo etc., would not speak of themselves as philosophical martial arts. They would emphasise the ‘martial’ aspect of the art but even within the ‘martial’ aspect, we can still learn something of how to move through the world (as Tsun Zhu’s Art of War , of the Five Rings of Miyomoto Musahis, the greatest swordsman ever, can attest).

The philosophy of Martial Arts bases itself on shin, gin, tai — mind, body, spirit (in much the same way that the Hebrew psychology of Man in the Genesis myth conceives of Man as mind, body, and spirit). In the West we have tended to emphasise body and soul and thus, intentionally or otherwise, we have created a dualism rather than an integrated vision of the human condition. Most Martial Arts instructors will emphasise the body aspect through their dedicated training, and the mind, through mental preparation to undertake the harsh, demanding, exhausting and very, very physical, training to achieve the required levels in Martial Arts excellence. Few would emphasise the ‘spiritual’.

Yet, the Martial Arts possesses, as a holistic approach to life (shin, gin, tai) a profound spirituality and ‘philosophy’ and it possesses these not because it has reflected on them in an analytical way, but because it has lived them out existentially. Thus, Ginchin Funokoshi, the founder of modern karate, could develop the ’20 Precepts of Karate’ and his first precept was ‘Karate always begins and ends with respect’. This respect is a respect for the totality of reality as it exists in itself. Funokoshi does not give a definition of reality, he does have to, he intuits that the truth of reality is that it is — it does not need an analytical process of intellectual labour to define it. Another of his precepts ‘There is no first initiative in karate’ (katate ni senti nashi) aims to guarantee that the Way of Karate is kept free from any taint of aggression — for to initiate an attack is an aggressive act and an aggressive act is contrary not just to the spirit of Karate, but also to life itself.

Thus, one of the primary philosophical tenets of the Martial Arts would be a paradox to the western analytical mind: the preservation of life rather than the taking of it through developing amazing physical skills that on the surface level seem violent and aggressive. But does it not stand true that the rigorous training in Martial Arts equips you with the skills necessary to inflict serious harm on another person? The answer is yes, but the true Martial Artist would answer, why would I wish to do that if I am training for excellence and perfection not just of Martial Arts skills but in life skills? Hence, the Martial Artist would not see the paradox because they would not understand it. The Martial Artist has only one thing to perfect and that is him/herself, and in that sense then he/she has only one opponent, the self, the ego, the preoccupation with a way of being in the world that is centred on me, myself and I and has no altruism in it.

In one of the other Martial Arts I have been studying for the same length of time, Batto-Jutsu (Samurai Sword), there is a strict code of behaviour and respect that underpins everything the swordsman does. The sword takes on a reality of its own to the extent that the sword (katana) is more important that the one who wields it. The aim of such a Martial Art is the ‘perfect draw and cut’ and that is seen as one single action — it is not expostulated as an Aristotelian cause and effect. The cause of the sword to be drawn is not the hand of the swordsman who draws it — there is no cause because the sword exists as a reality itself and does not need anything else less than itself (the human hand) to allow to be what it — a katana.

Thus, things are allowed to be what they are in themselves without it being necessary to analyse why they are that thing in the world as an existent. There is also a profound philosophy of life. Since karate (I practice and teach Shotokan Karate) is built on respect then the greatest respect that can be given is to whatever exists as a thing in itself in the world as that thing. In other words, respect for life predominates all Martial Arts practice and training. So, when my students say to me ‘What is the best self defence technique’, I always tell them it is running away. It is running away because the way not to be attacked is not to be there, the best way not to hurt anyone else is to walk away. That way no one gets hurt, since the object of the Martial Arts is self perfection there is no perfection in aggression or violence. And therein lies the ethics of Martial Arts since it seeks to preserve the truth and reality of things as they in the world without destroying them.

Western analytics (indeed as a lecturer in philosophy I am one of them) would seek a definition of reality, and what constitutes reality in the mind of a Martial Artist who is seriously into their Martial Arts (as I am) since what constitutes reality in the mind of one may not necessarily constitute reality in the mind of another. But karate, for example, as a word itself contains something of the Martial Arts understanding of reality. Karate is made up of two words ‘kara’ = empty, te = hand (e.g. karaoke = kara-empty oke = orchestra!). Here the ’empty’ does not just signify that the karate-ka (student of karate) does not possess a weapon, but also that what he does possess is nothing, an emptiness. In other words, there is nothing that exists beyond the person existing at that moment.

Herein lies the creativity of the Martial Arts. Techniques when called by an instructor are only words, they have meaning only as techniques, it is only when the karate-ka brings them into being through their training that they have any reality. So then many Martial Arts would be Occamist Nominalists!! (and as a Franciscan priest, I would have no problem with that!) since the name of the technique is only that a name, a signifier. So it is only when the mind conceives the idea of the technique, the body brings it into action through its physical expression, and the spirit empowers it with vigour, power, that one gets a true sense of the real metaphysics that are in Martial Arts.

But it not simply a physical event — it is also spiritual event, if we understand spiritual with a metaphysical bent as pertaining to the ‘spirit’ of all things that defines their being in the world and accept Duns Scotus’ concept of the object of metaphysics as the study of being-qua-being. Assuming this, one can then suggest that apart from the mental architecture that Martial Arts training helps build, there is an intelligible architecture because things are perceived in the world as they are as that thing through the Martial Artists perception of themselves in the world. Thus, the other triadic emphases of Martial Arts, Discipline, Etiquette, Respect, balance the metaphysical one of Mind, Body, Spirit, and the empirical triads of Training, Practice, Dedication, balance the ethical ones of Peace, Justice, Integrity.

So is there a ‘philosophy’ in Martial Arts? Speaking as a teacher of philosophy, a priest, a Scotist, and an experienced Martial Artist I say an empathic and resounding yes. It is as valid a way of being in the world as a religious way, and it is as valid a perception of the world as a western philosophical way. It does not possess the Ten Categories of Aristotle, nor does it possess a theory of the Forms of Plato, or an emanation of all things for the One as does Plotinian Neoplatonism, and it does not possess the insights of Positivism, or Cartesianism, but it does possess its own value system, and its own perceptions of the reality of existent things.

It does not need to classify those existent things into categories, or to seek to understand their metaphysical make up, but it does recognise that whatever way they exist in the world, they exist, even if it is only as shadows, or illusions. It is this struggle to understand being that confronts us all and I believe Scotus is right, that the proper object of metaphysics is being and while Scotus says it is being-qua-being and from that develops his wonderful theory of the Univocity of Being, I would say that if it is being-qua-being that is the proper object of metaphysics, then that study must be indiscriminate, and utilise whatever is in the world, or the mind, or the processes of philosophical investigation to help us contemplate, understand, reflect and express what that being is.

Quite aside from the philosophical questions that Martial Arts might throw into relief, there is another aspect of Martial Arts which many western practitioners fail to see and that is its aesthetic. Martial Arts is simply beautiful to look at when it is done properly. It is as graceful, as skilled, as deft and as fluid and flowing as ice-dance, ballroom dancing, gymnastics. I believe this is so because the form of the Martial Arts depends on an understanding not just of accidental in physical movement but how those movements as shapes appear to the onlooker and to the one engaged in the movements themselves. To see the gracefulness of the ancient art of Aikido, or the strong symmetry of a skilled samurai swordsman, or the powerful, strong yet perfectly balanced movement of a karate-ka is to understand that while these movements have what some may consider to be a dubious purpose (hurting people), in themselves they are works of art.

I am a Franciscan and a priest, a teacher of philosophy and a Martial Artist and the key phrase there is ‘I am’, I am not someone who ‘does’ these things; Martial Arts are not a ‘hobby’ — they are, and continue to be, integral to my life as a human person, as a priest, as a Franciscan, as a teacher, as a philosopher. So is there a ‘philosophy’ in Martial Arts? — yes, a very sophisticated, challenging, beautiful one.

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