The Spiritual Dimensions of the Martial Arts
By Robert Buratti
He who wishes to live in an oriental martial art, rather than to just practice it on a physical level, must so train his consciousness to attain a self-discipline that at last his conscious mind will merge into an identity with the very principle of life itself.
Amongst the usual loud and predictable offerings at the Australian cinema box office last summer, the Hollywood movie The Last Samurai emerged as an interesting alternative for many curious movie-goers. We were presented with a unique perspective on the cultural interaction between East and West. The film deals almost exclusively with the philosophical, spiritual and martial differences between Japan and America, and presents in grand form the figure of the Samurai, and the way his martial practice has a powerful spiritual dimension to which the West cannot relate.
The traditional practice of Martial Arts is now experiencing a renaissance of sorts, and this is largely due to the fact many people are realising the existence of the esoteric spiritual components behind widely known styles. The Arts are no longer considered remnants of old cultures, but valid and effective methods of achieving spiritual growth. The Martial Arts were actually formulated for this purpose all along.
A Spiritual Heritage
In 475, the Indian monk Bodhidharma arrived in Southern China. On his arrival he moved to the Huan province where he spent nine years in meditation, facing the rock wall of a cave. When the monk emerged from his retreat, he stumbled across a small mountain temple approximately one mile away called Shaolin. Bodhidharma was shocked to see the terrible physical condition of the monks of the Shaolin Temple who practiced long-term meditation exercises which, while making them spiritually strong, totally destroyed their physical health.
Bodhidharma created an exercise regime for the monks involving physical techniques that were efficient in strengthening the body, and eventually, could be used to defend oneself from the inevitable travelling thieves and gangs prominent in the area at the time. The latter benefit was a simple side benefit of the practice. The former was the main objective. The primary concern was always maintaining the physical strength of the monks for the purpose of meditation. These physical exercises developed into what we now know as Martial Arts.
Amongst the myriad of contemporary options for developing the spirit, the Martial Arts remains one of the oldest and most universally effective systems for teaching internal ideas which awaken the spiritual dimension in all parts of life.
The Physical Path To Enlightenment
The true value in studying the Martial Arts lies not in the learning of the technique or system itself, but in the acquisition of particular internal qualities that are developed through the learning process. The physical exercises are the concrete examples of abstract philosophical principles. Footwork systems teach the student about the qualities of energy, ebb and flow, and both creative and destructive potential. Handwork patterns teach the student about balance, dynamics and the intuition of natural spirit.
The actions of blocking, deflecting, striking, breaking and throwing all contain concepts that can be applied to the human spirit. Then in combat, we unite these concepts and in the process discover our own nature which is forced to emerge under extreme stress and pressure.
One is never rattled as much as when under attack. In this act, one’s metal is tested and they emerge with a new view of themselves and in many cases, a view of their true self. This is a first step to self realisation.
The legendary Japanese swordsman, Myamoto Musashi, found that the more he looked for proficiency and efficiency in his training, the more he looked for proficiency and efficiency in all things. He began to look for the deeper purpose in everything that he did.
When farming, he took land made useless by yearly floods and turned it into productive land by building his dikes and fields in the shape of the natural water flow. The farmers built a shrine in his honour for his concepts and prayed at that shrine daily. He found that every part of his life effected every other part of his life and he began to look for the spirituality in every part of his life.
Combat places great demands on the capacities of the warrior. Such demands act as powerful learning situations for self-discovery and self-confrontation.
To defeat a thousand enemies is good, but the Samurai who defeats himself is the greatest of warriors.
Perhaps the first and most important of these is the confrontation with death. Throughout life we are sporadically confronted with death, be it through family, television or literature. In the modern world we are very familiar with death, but rarely if ever are we confronted with the prospect of our personal demise. But when it does arrive it most likely will be a sudden, irrevocable and inconvenient event from which we learn nothing. The martial artist does not ignore or wait for death, but walks right up to it.
In the Martial Arts, death is a constant presence. The whole activity revolves around it. Attack, defense and counter-attack are all performed as if a true life-or-death situation were involved. With proficiency, the vigour of the actions increases and, if one is using weapons, one may employ, for instance, a ‘live’ (naked) sword instead of a bamboo or wooden sword – all of which make the situation genuinely dangerous. The practitioner confronts death and makes peace with it in the knowledge it is inevitable. With this understanding, there exists no more fear, and the martial artist is now truly free.
All spiritual systems set up a confrontation with death, for confronting death is perhaps the most important element of spirituality. The basic preparatory practices of Buddhism involve the recognition one’s life is short and one may die tomorrow. In the Chod rite of Tibet, practitioners visit a graveyard at night (where the corpses are left exposed to the elements and scavengers) and invite the demons to come and take them. Christians and Muslims invite the Almighty to take their souls at any time.
The fear of death is the greatest obstacle for the martial artist. This fear has a quality of rigidity, or paralysis, or of loss of control; one may freeze with terror, or one may panic and react blindly and irrationally. Such reactions, intruding at the crucial moment in combat, will spell death, even for the technically accomplished fighter.
But freedom from this incapacitating fear releases great powers. There is a story of a Master of the Japanese Tea Ceremony from the province of Tasa – a man of no martial skill yet of great meditative and spiritual accomplishment. He accidentally gave offence to a high-ranking Samurai and was challenged to a duel.
He went to the local Zen Master to seek advice. The Zen Master told him frankly that he had little chance of surviving the encounter, but that he could ensure an honourable death by treating the combat as he would the formal ritual of the Tea Ceremony. He should compose his mind, paying no attention to the petty chatterings of thoughts of life and death. He should grasp the sword straightforwardly, as he would the ladle in the Tea Ceremony; and with the same precision and concentration of mind with which he would pour the boiling water onto the tea, he should step forward, with no thought of the consequence, and strike his opponent down in one blow.
The Tea Master prepared himself accordingly, abandoning all fear of death. When the morning of the duel arrived, the Samurai, encountering the total poise and fearlessness of his opponent, was so shaken that he promptly begged forgiveness and called off the fight.
The recognition and mental triumph over death is the martial artist’s greatest power, in that he will focus on the fact he has little time and hence lets his acts flow accordingly. Each act is your last battle on Earth, and only with this philosophy will your acts have their rightful power. Otherwise they will be, for as long as you live, the acts of a timid man.
In the words of a Samurai legend, “being timid is fine if you are to be immortal, but if you are going to die, there is no time for timidity, simply because timidity makes you cling to something that exists only in your thoughts.” It soothes you while everything is at a lull, but then the awesome, mysterious world will open its mouth for you, as it will open for every one of us, and then you will realise your sure ways were not sure at all. Being timid prevents us from examining and exploiting our lot as men.
Painting: "Gekko's Essay—Blacksmith and Divine Fox". Blacksmith Munechika (end of the 10th century), helped by a fox spirit (left, surrounded by little foxes), forging the blade Ko-Gitsune Maru (“Little Fox”).
Mastery of Energy
To the martial artist, Energy manifests within each individual as spirit, spirit manifests in each individual as mind. This Energy or “Chi” as it is known in China, or “Ki” in Japan, permeates everything, and hence is both the martial artist’s strongest connection to his enemy as well as his strongest weapon against his enemy.
The mastery of this energy is a central element of all traditional forms of Martial Arts practice. Two widely recognised expressions of this ideal are the Chinese art of Tai Chi Chuan, and the Japanese art of Aikido.
Tai Chi Chuan integrates many elements of Chinese culture such as philosophy and religion, medicine, and military practice. It draws its inspiration for movement heavily from the philosophy of yin and yang. It incorporates the theory of the Five Elements of cosmology and the principles of the Bagua (“Eight Trigrams”) together with motion, creating a continuous flow of movement that reflect the ideas behind these ideologies.
The Yin-Yang symbol, which is often linked with Tai Chi Chuan, represents the interaction of Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are shown in equal amounts, yet the Yin portion of the Yin-Yang contains a small amount of Yang and the Yang portion an equally small amount of Yin.
The ancient Chinese saw the universe as a vast unity with every part of it being related to and dependent on every other part. Within this unity, there is continual change in an endless cycle between two partners, the Yin (feminine, dark, soft, yielding) and the Yang (masculine, hard, aggressive).
The universe is entirely made from these two forms of energy and in order for all things to progress harmoniously, the forces of Yin and yang must constantly interact with each other. While doing so, each must evolve, over a period of time, into its opposite, just as day gradually turns to night. For this reason, everything that seems to be Yin contains some Yang and all that is Yang also contains some Yin, without which change would not be possible. (Chen Lei)
From this view of existence and energy, the style of Tai Chi Chuan was constructed. It is a perfect physical expression of the Yin-Yang philosophy and operates within the same parameters and limitations.
While other martial styles are violently fast and rigid, Tai Chi is slow and controlled, with techniques that flow endlessly into one another. Just as Yin-Yang energy maintains a continual flow, so does the Tai Chi form. There is no rigid stop-start, only a controlled natural mimic of energy. This is why Tai Chi is often seen as one of the most graceful and peaceful Martial Arts. Just as energy is circular in flow, all Tai Chi footwork is circular in direction, and just as energy is a natural phenomenon, the Tai Chi defence postures are always in a natural form, not rigid, boxing-like military stances.
The effective practice of Tai Chi relies on a pure and deep understanding of the Yin-Yang/ Tai Chi view of Chi and the universe. Without this spiritual dimension to the art, the student is not practicing Tai Chi, they are simply performing empty movements of little significance to themselves or the world around them.
Another art dealing with the dynamics of energy was founded by Ueshiba Morihei in 1942. The Japanese art of Aikido was considered a continuation of the Samurai Arts, and borrows much of its spiritual dimension and expression from Bushido (The Way of the Samurai), particularly its use of traditional sword practices. It is a relatively contemporary system and much a continuation of Japanese values and culture as it is a cultivation of philosophy and spirit.
The meaning of Aikido is literally the “artful path of discovery of gathering Ki”. Ki is the Japanese translation of Chi, and shares an identical definition. It is suggested that Ki was “born” at the same instant as the rest of the universe, and that we are all born from the Ki of the universe. All living organisms have equal access to Ki, and it will course through our system if we allow it. Daily Aikido practice is primarily directed at maintaining a balanced state physically and emotionally, and practicing ways to cultivate this energy.
Like Tai Chi, Aikido is a physical expression of this way of seeing the world. As a result, it has no attack form, because attacking an opponent would be like attacking a family member or damaging the flow of Universal Ki energy sustaining the world. Once again, because Ki moves constantly, so does the martial artist, with all of Aikido’s footwork occurring in circular patterns. Aikido also places great attention on the balance aspect of energy, and hence has created an awareness of balance essential to its maneuvers. The main techniques of the style involve particular throwing and wrestling patterns that are precisely dependent on the perfect balance of its practitioner.
In Aikido like all Martial Arts, physical and emotional balance is codependent. Physical balance helps to engender emotional balance. An understanding of the nature of our spirit will help the practitioner create an effective alignment of thought and action. When every aspect of the individual is aligned the individual is better able to adapt and change.
Spirituality and the Samurai
The Way of Zen perpetuates the earliest Buddhist traditions. It signifies the perfect natural state of enlightenment. Zen cannot be rationalised, only experienced, lived and realised. Unattainable through concrete thought and analysis, the Way of Zen is found through meditational practice engaging both mind and body. Zen may be considered a unique expression of the Mahayana Buddhism. It originated in the northern regions of India and later moved to China and then Japan where it became a strong influence from around 1190 CE onwards. It exerted such an influence that up until a few years ago, it would have been difficult to find a person of noble Japanese origins who had not been exposed to Zen philosophy.
Zen offers an interesting perspective in the world of Martial Arts and spirituality, because it becomes hard to see where the spiritual philosophy ends and the martial practice begins. While most Martial Art philosophies are a building process supplying us with tools and understanding, the experience of Zen is a destructive process, in the strict sense that it removes things from our lives that keep us from enlightenment. Zen’s liberation comes in absolute autonomy. There are no gods, no denominations, and no higher authority. It is necessary to abandon all crutches and proceed forward with no assistance.
The role of Zen in the Samurai society is amazingly complex. It sustained the warrior spirit in two ways: Morally, because Zen is a system which teaches the individual not to look back once the course is decided; and philosophically, because Zen treats life and death indifferently.
The classic text, Hagakure or “Hidden by Leaves” attributed to the Samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo, states that, “The Way of the Samurai is found in death” and goes on to say that the Samurai is powerful because his mind is no longer attached to life and death. The Samurai will “conquer immortality by dying without hesitations.” Great deeds are accomplished when one attains the Zen state of “no-mind-ness.”
It is through this Zen state of “no-mind” that swordplay becomes not an act of killing but an instrument of spiritual self-discipline. The individual, the sword and the target become one. The blade moves by itself under the influence of the target without any individual decision, always finding a perfect blow. The acknowledgement of mastery in the sword is also the acknowledgement of a higher degree of Zen spirituality. The “no-mind” is one of the most influential Zen concepts to mix with the Samurai psyche.
A mind unconscious of itself is a mind that is not at all disturbed by affects of any kind. It is the original mind and not the delusive one that is chock-full of affects. It is always flowing; it never halts; nor does it turn solid. It fills the whole body, pervading every part of the body. It is never like a stone or a piece of wood. If it should find a resting place anywhere, it is not a mind-of-no-mind. A no-mind will keep nothing in it. It is thus called mushin. (G.R. Parulski)
This “empty-minded-ness” applies to all creative activities, such as dancing and swordplay. The mind flows freely from one object to another stopping at no single concern. In this process the mind is free and fulfills every function required of it. When the mind stops at a single thought, it loses its freedom. It cannot hear, it cannot see, even when sound enters the ears or light flashes before the eyes. Every mind has the nature of Buddha and every person is already liberated beyond birth and death. They must only realise this fact. Zen seeks to promote this realisation, the gradual process of which is referred to as Satori. The consequence of Satori is a completely new way of seeing the world and one’s place within it. According to Zen, liberation should not be looked for in the next world, for this is the next world and is already liberated. We are already at our goal, yet we cannot realise it.
Zen does not require involvement in speculation, sacred texts or writings, and every theory is valid only as an indication toward the Way. Originally a secret doctrine, passed on by the Buddha to his disciple Mahakassapa, Zen itself arose as a reaction against the fantastic and shallow rituals of traditional Hinduism, and while seeming quite loose in form, it actually operates on a base of severe self-discipline which appealed to the Samurai. Far removed from the harsh ascetic practices of its contemporary systems, the discipline of Zen involves a more subtle and inward form operating on four levels.
The first is the mastery of external objects, in particular the reactions which emanate from them. The student must understand that every time a yearning leads him toward something, he is not in control of the external object, but rather the object is in control of him. “He who loves a liquor, deceived himself in thinking that he is drinking the liquor; the truth is, the liquor is drinking him.” (Hagakure)
The second stage sees the student master the physical body. Often at this level, martial training accompanies spiritual growth as an initiatory counterpart. It is here that legends grew of superhuman Samurai and masters who could withstand the extremes of heat and cold, and break trees and stone with their bare hands. The Samurai exerts dominion over his body and mastery of his own mental functioning.
Imagine your own body as something other than yourselves. If it cries, quiet it right away, as a strict mother does with her own child. If it is capricious, control it as a rider does his own horse, through the bridle. If it is sick, administer medicines to it, just as a doctor does with a patient. If it disobeys you, punish it, as a teacher does with a pupil. (Hagakure)
The third stage involves controlling personal emotion, and establishing an inner equilibrium. Through meditational practices the student confronts every fear and excitement in an effort to “bring the heart under control.”
The fourth stage is the rejection of the Ego, and the most difficult. The heart of the philosophy promotes a higher form of spontaneity, freedom and calmness in action. Traditional arts have originated in the East as a response and execution of this mental state. Many of these arts were developed as a means of achieving Zen awareness. While the majority are martial in nature, the Zen element extends to the art of drama, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and painting. Mastery in any of these arts cannot be achieved without the inner enlightenment and transformative power of Zen.
Generally Zen does not promote the hermit like existence found in legend, but rather asks that the practitioner lives in the world with a Zen state of consciousness which should be permanent and permeate every experience and activity. The student will labour with his mind and body until they have reached the extreme limit of all natural faculties, and eventually achieve Satori. The student is only supposed to spend the training period in Zen monasteries, and once they have achieved Satori, the student returns to the world, choosing a way of life that fits their needs.
Martial Arts systems are all united in the fact they demand the practitioner to readjust their lifestyle. Aside from being an intellectual and physical pursuit, true practice arises in the expression of the Art throughout one’s daily life and thought. Attending a Martial Arts class once a week will not release the enormous transformative potential of this avenue, but it will start you on an ancient path that has affected lives for centuries. Like all spiritual endeavours it requires commitment and patience.
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Geis, K.E., (1990) The Spiritual Aspect of the Martial Arts, The Fugakukai International Association
Parulski, G., Zen and the Samurai: Why Zen Became Associated with a Warrior Class
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