The Volokh Conspiracy

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The martial arts are arts


Students stand in formation before wushu practice at the Tagou martial arts school in Dengfeng, China. (Nicholas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images)

This post is based on David B. Kopel's "Self-Defense in Asian Religions," [2 Liberty Law Review 79 (2007)].

In a recent speech Meryl Streep announced that without Hollywood, "you'll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts." Although Streep won a well-deserved award for an outstanding acting career, the award did not confer authority to define what are "the arts." The martial arts are called "martial arts" because they are generally recognized to be arts, even though they are not the particular arts at which Streep and Hollywood excel. Anti-martial hauteur was well-known to the ancient Taoists:

In the space of one generation, the cultural and the martial may shift in relative significance, insofar as there are times when each is useful. Nowadays, however, martialists repudiate culture and the cultured repudiate the martial. Adherents of cultural and martial arts reject each other, not knowing their functions according to the time. [Thomas Cleary, "The Taoist Classics" (vol. 1, 2003), p. 314]

Watching the martial arts, including mixed martial arts, can be entertaining, as Sonny Bunch pointed out in a recent Post article. More importantly, the martial arts, when properly followed, foster good character and transcendence of selfishness—virtues that Hollywood often congratulate itself for promoting via the cinematic arts.

According to tradition, the martial arts were founded around 520 A.D. by Bodhidharma, a great Buddha who brought Zen Buddhism from India to China. During the journey to China, Bodhidharma was carrying valuable documents, and learned of the dangers to travelers posed by robbers. He meditated, and experienced a revelation that he should study animals. So he began to do so, and from the study, eventually developed the "18 movements of Lo Han."

At the Shao-lin Temple in China, Bodhidharma saw that many monks fell asleep during meditation. He felt compassionate pity for the monks whose bodies were wasting away through purely mental meditation exercises. So Bodhidharma decided to teach the "bodies and minds" of the monks. He invented Kung Fu (or Chuan Fa), a form of boxing used for systematic exercise.

There was another benefit to the Bodhidharma's martial arts: because the monks had undertaken vows not to use weapons, gangs of soldiers or ex-soldiers would often rob the monks who traveled outside their monastery. After learning the unarmed combat techniques of martial arts, the monks could journey safely, and so they traveled around China, Okinawa and Japan, disseminating the martial arts. The ideal martial artist was a Scholar Warrior, a person whose mind and body were well-trained and well-integrated.

For practical self-defense, the martial arts have been especially important to people who are persecuted by the government. For example, when China was ruled by the Mongols, the arms prohibition on the subjugated Chinese was so severe that only 1 out of 10 families was allowed a carving knife. The martial arts have also been important for cultural defense. As Thomas Cleary described the period of the Ming Dynasty in China:

It would seem that one of the concerns of the time, therefore, was the "deposit" of knowledge that would allow humankind to survive in the future. Geniuses everywhere from Europe to East Asia seem to have deposited part of that knowledge right in the infrastructures of conflict (such as the martial arts), and then moved to balance this by developing culture to a high pitch . . . . This whole process itself illustrates a principle of the I Ching, whereby waxing and waning balance each other. [Thomas Cleary, "Classics of Buddhism and Zen" (vol. 5, 2002), p. 97]

For example, when Japan conquered Okinawa in 1609 and disarmed the people, Okinawans practiced martial arts as a means of preserving their cultural identity. Unsurprisingly, genocidal tyrant Mao Zedong attempted to wipe out all knowledge of the martial arts in his campaign to exterminate all aspects of traditional culture, which might impede his efforts to enslave all the people of China under his totalitarian cult of personality.

Sometimes, the martial arts have been studied and applied in a morally degenerate fashion, as in 20th century Japan under the military dictatorship. More often, however, the arts have been used to build good character and self-control—including as a meditation practice. One advantage of moving meditation is that it is easier for the teacher to monitor the student's progress. In sitting meditation, as long as the student maintains the correct posture, the teacher cannot see if the student is falling into error or bad habits. With moving meditation, the student's physical actions help the teacher discern if the student is able to maintain calm and to overcome fear. The Zen master Hakuin (1685-1768) concluded that:

The advantage in accomplishing true meditation lies distinctly in favor of the warrior class … mounted on a sturdy horse, the warrior can ride forth to face an uncountable horde of enemies as though he were riding into a place empty of people. The valiant, undaunted expression on his face reflects his practice of the peerless, true, uninterrupted meditation sitting. Meditating in this way, the warrior can accomplish in one month what it takes the monk a year to do.

There is a certain amount of technique that a martial arts master can impart by direct instruction. Yet much of the learning must come through self-discovery by the student. Masters speak of "a special transmission beyond instruction." The student studies ji, the techniques of the particular martial art. True mastery, though, comes from ri, the ineffable truths of the universe.

For example, kyudo is Japanese ritual archery, in which the archer moves through a very formal and precise set of eight steps in raising, aiming and firing the bow. The first level of kyudo is called toteki (the arrow hits the target). The archer is concentrating on the technique of shooting accurately. He is more concerned with hitting the center of the target than with his form. In the first level, the target is seen as a goal.

At the second level, kanteki (the arrow pierces the target), the archer's body moves with beautiful symmetry. His breath control helps unify his mind, body and spirit, so that his shooting is smooth and extremely powerful. True kanteki is much more than a technique that can be taught. In kanteki, the target is seen as an opponent.

Finally, the martial artist progresses to zaiteki (the arrow exists in the target). The target is no longer a goal or an opponent; the target is a true reflection of the archer. The archer aims to purify his thoughts and his actions, knowing that pure shooting will flow from a pure mind and body. Now, "there is no distance between man and target, man and man, and man and the universe—all are in perfect harmony." [Hideharu Onuma, Kyydo: The Essence and Practice of Japanese Archery (1993)]

One of the essential goals of spiritual growth through the martial arts is to forget oneself. The Zen Buddhist sword master Takuan explained that:

The mind must always be in the state of "flowing" … When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy's sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the unconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the unconscious that strikes. [Quoted in Joe Hyams, "Zen in the Martial Arts" (1982), p. 84.]

The martial artist must learn not to focus on one part of the opponent's body. Narrow focus creates blind spots that lead to the artist to receiving blows. As the martial artist learns in combat to adopt a wider perspective, so should he learn in all the rest of his life to see more completely. He should transcend the visual limit that ostensibly separates mind from body, or self from universe. He is no longer located in a particular sequence of time, but instead lives in the eternal present: "In sports, time exists. In the martial arts there is only the present." [Taisen Deshimaru, "The Zen Way to the Martial Arts" (1982), p.23]

Like psychotherapy, martial arts training may allow the student to experience a previously unknown state of self-awareness, and the awareness can lead to terrifying experiences of shame or guilt. The existential crisis might be analogized to what St. John of the Cross called the "dark night of the soul." At the crisis point, some students will turn away, while others will confront their true selves.

The martial arts are superficially a form of training to fight external foes. But the true martial artist must combat the enemy within—and if he is to prevail, he must fight without greed, ignorance or hatred. If he wins, then his internal demons can be harnessed into service of the good. Defeating self-deception is not a once-and-for-all battle. After one form of self-deception is defeated, a more sophisticated and insidious form may replace it. The psychological and spiritual struggle does not take place while a passive subject is lying on a psychotherapist's couch, paying for advice. The inner combat is experienced through physical combat:

Chuan Fa used the wordless strategy of direct interpersonal encounter to teach the words of personal self-encounter. It uses the "words" of personal self-encountering to understand the wordless doctrine of interpersonal encounter. Ultimately it sought to encounter the infinity known as perfect and complete Enlightenment. [Shifu Nagaboshi Tomio, The Boddhisativa Warriors (1994), p. 279]

The whole energy (ki) of the universe flows through the martial artist at a single point in his body. By staying centered on this one point, the mind and body of the artist are united with the universe and can experience its infinite energy and freedom. Kyudo master Hideharu Onuma was asked by some students how they should practice after they returned to the United States, and he could no longer instruct them. He replied, "Your practice should always center around these six elements: truth, goodness, beauty, balance, humility, and perseverance." [Onuma, p. 150]

Some martial arts teachers in the United States specialize in empowering women and in integrating feminist values into the spiritual instruction. Some female participants report that the martial arts have liberated them from the notion that women must always be victims, that women are incapable of resisting successfully. The principle applies to physical attacks, and in more abstract social settings. Said one woman: "If every woman in the world could defend herself, it would change the world; patriarchy would crumble … Physical empowerment for women is critical from the start; then women wouldn't be as intimidated psychologically by men." [Shirely Castlenuovo & Sharon R. Guthrie, "Feminism and the Female Body: Liberating the Amazon Within" (1998), pp. 67-90]

Vernon Kitabu Turner was a weak and bookish American black child in the racist South. He was a descendant of Nat Turner, a mystic who in 1831 led the largest slave revolt in American history. Bullies would often attack him when he sat under a tree reading. When he was nine years old, in 1964, he heard about the Kitty Genovese murder. It was reported by the New York Times that in Queens, New York, a young woman was stalked, attacked repeatedly and stabbed to death outside an apartment building over the course of half an hour. Thirty-eight people allegedly heard her scream, but none of them did anything. Meditating on Psalm 144 ("Blessed be the Lord, my strength, who teaches my hands to make war, and my fingers to fight."), Turner asked God to teach him to fight, to learn how to protect people. Turner promised that he would never abuse the knowledge. He took up the martial arts and eventually became an American Zen master.

In church, Turner remembered, the congregants heard and believed the story of David and Goliath. Yet they refused to apply the story to their own lives. They could not believe that, with God's help, they could "bring down Goliath." Turner explains that the person who truly understands Zen will say, "I will do no harm to others. I will not be a person who is aggressive and violent. But neither will I sit here and watch someone be destroyed when I know I should reach out and offer a helping hand." [Vernon Kitabu Turner, "Soul Sword: The Way and Mind of a Zen Warrior" (2000)]

Not every person who studies the martial arts does so for the purpose of moral self-improvement and community service, just as not everyone in Hollywood works for the noble purposes for which Streep congratulated herself and her peers. Like many Hollywood filmmakers, some mixed martial arts fighters simply provide violent entertainment. Yet when practiced at the highest level, the arts are paths to self-transcendence, and the paths are equally available to practitioners of the cinematic arts and the martial arts. One step towards a better America is greater empathy and tolerance among the people of a diverse nation. The people who cheered Streep's remarks about empathy will, I hope, respect their fellow citizens who study the martial arts.