Martial Arts and Spirituality 3: throwing the baby out with the bathwater

It is true that many traditional martial arts may not be very effective. This has been proven in practice. Mixed martial arts and in particular, competitions such as UFC, have shown which fighting styles are most effective: wrestling, BJJ, Muay Thai are some that stand out. This is reflected in the MMA gyms that have popped up all around the world, where students can learn these fighting styles. However, Bruce Lee is often said to be the father of mixed martial arts because he was the first to promote an open attitude towards seeing what works from a variety of styles and to let go of mindless traditions that have no purpose.

But while it is true that martial arts have become more effective by shunning traditions, have they thrown out the baby with the bathwater? While martial arts have become more effective, there is something that has been lost. Some people call it the “oriental” flavour of the traditional martial arts. But I don’t believe it is a culturally defined element. I believe it is a meditative and reflective attitude that is brought to martial arts practice, and it is largely missing from modern martial arts. So what is this “inner” dimension?

We can find this spiritual element in the approach of martial arts said to have been used by Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of both Chan Buddhism and Shaolin Kung Fu. According to Michael Spiesbach, Bodhidharma taught breathing and fighting techniques from India, along with meditation, which was like “killing two birds with one stone.” He also points out that since the time of Bodhidharma it is still true that both Chan Buddhism and the eastern martial arts have relied on the same sense of determination and self-determination to gain control of the body and mind and reach enlightenment. 

We can find this focus on body and mind control in the practice of kata, in martial arts like Karate. Students perform set movements with body and mind control. Some even refer to this as a form of moving meditation. An equivalent practice is Tai Chi, which also has martial applications. However, what many modern martial artists, including Bruce Lee, point out is that these set movements have very little practical application. They cannot protect you in a life or death confrontation, especially with a person who has trained in MMA, Boxing, Muay Thai or the like.

I would agree with that. If your aim is to learn self-defence, I personally wouldn’t focus on learning anything like traditional katas. But I also think it is somewhat pointless to spend your whole life preparing for a fight that may never eventuate. For martial arts to have real value, especially in many safe countries in today’s world, they need to offer more than just self-defence. The risk of being attacked is very low in many places around the world, so to spend one’s life preparing for an unlikely attack is quite a big time expenditure unless there is something else of value in this training.

Yes, there is fitness and comradery involved in learning martial arts. But I think deeper than that there is a very deep sense of spiritual growth that can be developed through these arts. A perfect example of this is the South-east Asian martial art, Silat. Mark V. Wiley explains that this art involves self-control and nobility, the biggest fight seen to be within. While the Silat practitioner does learn deadly techniques, through these practical methods they also aim to purify themselves. This shows that effective martial arts drills and training can be used as both a way to improve one’s self-defence and as a method of mind/body training much like kata. This goes back to Bodhidarma’s “killing two birds with one stone” approach.

Another aspect is the moral element. Mark V. Wiley also explains that the Silat practitioner actually dreads the possibility of having to use their fighting skills in real combat and should always aim to be gracious and merciful. There is much to learn from this approach. One of the biggest dangers of learning a martial art, and especially an effective one, is that you could really inflict harm on other people. Not only that, because you spend so much time developing your fighting skills, you may even find yourself on the lookout for a chance to try them out. You might find yourself in a heated situation and instead of trying to talk your way out of it, you might make things physical, hurt someone and even end up in prison, and all because you had no self-control.

This is something very important that has always been emphasised in traditional martial arts. It is about learning self-control. It is about learning to control your mind and body. That means learning how to control your body when learning fighting techniques but also learning how to control your mind and emotions and learning when and how to use these techniques in the real world, if ever. 

According to this view, a martial art is something you learn in case you need to use it but in the hope that you never will. It is one of your life-skills that you have to keep hidden from others and only utilise when absolutely necessary. We naturally get very excited and proud of the things we master so to keep them hidden from public view obviously takes a lot of self-control, and this is part and parcel of the traditional martial way. 

Going back to Bruce Lee, while he always tried to break through traditions and find what works best in different styles, he also brought a philosophical attitude to his practice. He didn’t use martial arts just as a form of self-defence, but also as a means of self-mastery. So, perhaps we need to learn from Bruce’s and Bodhidharma’s approaches and blend practicality with spirituality by concentrating on the development of things such as self-control, morality and mindfulness through effective martial arts practice.

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