Martial Arts and Spirituality 1: The Inner and the Outer

Martial arts and I have had an up and down relationship. I still don't know what to think about these fighting techniques and how, if at all, they relate to spirituality.

I was raised on Bruce Lee movies and have since had an affinity for the grace and beauty of his and others' moves. I only really started learning martial arts myself when I was 19 and practiced Jeet Kun Do informally with a proficient friend. But that was short lived because at the same time as I was learning how to hurt people, I was also on a spiritual quest towards inner peace. So, after some deliberation, I decided that to be a true pacifist, I had to relinquish my martial arts training.

In the years after, I would still be struck with ecstatic excitement every time I saw some martial arts in a movie and would break out into kicks in my living room. But that was it until almost 20 years later when my wife and son enrolled in a Karate class. I didn't really want my son to learn how to fight for the same reason that I gave it up. As it turned out, my wife didn't stick with it. And when I went to watch my son in class, that old feeling of awe re-emerged and I took my wife's membership. Since then, which was a year ago, I have begun a search for the "ultimate" style and the "best" way to approach martial arts with a spiritual mind.

I still get baffled by the notion that martial arts and peacefulness can coexist. But this at the heart of such styles as Tai Chi Chuan and Aikido. Even harder styles like Karate are said by some to promote tranquility of mind. However, this inner dimension has been forgotten by many people who practice these arts in the West. Here, martial arts are often either a sport or simply a self-defence system. Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with practicing martial arts as a sport or for self-defence. As a sport, it can often, not always, be practiced in a jovial and friendly way. And in terms of self-defence, I think everyone has the right to defend themselves against an unprovoked attacker.

But what about the aspect of peace?

Well, linked to self-defence, I think there is an important outer dimension of peace which is connected to the notion of justice and taking care of others. If I am walking down the street and see someone getting attacked, I would like to think that I would step in to protect them. But to do this so that I could successfully defend the innocent person, I would need to have some effective skills, especially considering the fact that I am a thin man who is probably not as strong as a lot of others. Defending others is a noble act. And the need for this type of action intensifies the more innocent people are involved. What if a person is walking around with a knife trying to stab a crowd of people? If I can take control of him, I can prevent all those people getting hurt or even killed. So, here my act of violence saves others, which means it can essentially be called an act of peace. In this sense, martial arts is like First-Aid: I learn it just in case I need to use it to save others.

But what about the inner dimension? That's where it gets trickier for me. Tai Chi Chuan and Aikido are both martial arts that have a philosophy of peace based on the Taoist concepts of Chi (life energy) and Yin and Yang. They try to use the attacker's own force against them. They also try to align their movements with the breath, keeping them soft and flowing. However, both systems are claimed by most martial artists to be very ineffective in real combat. So, while they may help a person to develop peace within, they may not help them defend innocent people being attacked, that is, they may not promote outer peace. If these martial arts are not effective in practice, then perhaps their practitioners may be attached to a self-centred notion of peace, valuing their own sense of equilibrium above others' safety.

I'm still not sure about the whole thing. As a person devoted to developing peace within, I would like to learn a martial art that is both outwardly effective and inwardly enriching. The search is still underway!

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