Preying for Enlightenment
by Max Holton, Kempo & Richard Bennett, AMAM
Most martial arts seem to have some type of spiritual basis, some stronger than others, often seen as a connection with a person's inner self rather than with some outside deity.
The martial arts are often misunderstood by John Q. Public. Terms like Karate, Jujitsu, Tae Kwon Do, and Kung Fu are frequently used, but seldom understood to their fullest. Often, they're seen as a generic sport or an evening fitness class, like aerobics or spinning, while the rich history and philosophy of traditional martial arts mostly seem to have been lost or denied to much of the generalized Western public.
Sadly, when they're asked to describe martial arts, often the first thoughts that may arise are the various familiarized Asian forms of physical combat, more external hard styles and then sometimes the softer internal styles, and a myriad of highly visible sports competitions...while the mostly ill perceived, and increasingly less understood, deeper spiritual relationship associated within more organic martial arts may now go almost unnoticed.
It seems that most martial arts in the West still revolve around commercial schools located in local shopping plazas promoting contracted monthly training schedules in their particular style, priding themselves as formal “Black Belt” schools with intentions that, in anything from two years to five years, each member on their timetable can obtain the coveted Black Belt, often seen as an expert level.
It seems that children to adults can obtain this degree, the industry standard of excellence, through watered down curriculum's of strictly limited striking, blocking, kicking, and graceful dance-like forms and structured movements simulating combat as long as they remain current on their monthly payments, known as tuition's. At these schools, each discipline’s standard is different on what constitutes earning a Black Belt. This is not to say that many a fine, even mastered practitioner does not emerge; but it does mean that many of these practitioners may only have a limited understanding of martial arts in general.
Unfortunately, many of these practitioners seem only to know little of their art's history, let alone their lineage from founder to student, they seem to have little concept of other styles of martial arts in comparison to their own. I mean that they have martial application as their main focus, but they often lack much of the philosophy, healing arts, and the spiritual aspects of their systems.
It is this writer's observation that it seems when someone mentions spirituality within the martial arts much pessimism and disapproval follows as if there is no connection between the two; even making it a true taboo of sorts in merging them together.
In the West there is an unspoken separation between true spirituality and martial arts, which is unfortunate since many Asian martial arts are often associated and directly born out of Buddhism and Taoism. The relationship or bond between religion and the practice of martial arts dates back well over 1,000 years.
Although Buddhism may have originated in India, it was then brought by holy men to parts of China where it first began to spread and take root in certain regions. It is conjectured that these holy men practiced forms of martial arts to protect themselves during their travels. To surmise the introduction of the martial arts, the Chinese most often refer to a tale revolving around one legendary holy man named Bodhidharma.
Bodhidharma was a Buddhist believed to be of a high ranking Indian family. Said to have been discouraged with the trappings of his family’s wealth, he left India and sought enlightenment. He wandered to China and eventually came to a small monastery in the Songshan mountains around 520 A.D. This remote monastery is the now known as the famous Shaolin Temple.
There Bodhidharma, known as Ta-Mo in Chinese, introduced the monks to what was to become Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhists practice long periods of static meditation in order to achieve enlightenment. It is said that Ta-Mo himself meditated continuously in a cave for nine years to reach such a level of supreme enlightenment.
To help the monks sustain their physical health he taught them exercises that were fundamentally martial arts. This training also evolved into forms of practical self-defense to better protect the monks against invaders and marauders. Over time, this training developed into a movement until China became known as the cradle of martial arts. Here we can see that the legend really portrays the introduction of martial arts in Asia as a component of health, philosophy, and religion.
As Bodhidharma's reputation grew to become associated with the idea that spiritual, intellectual and physical excellence are an indivisible whole necessary for enlightenment, such an approach to enlightenment ultimately proved highly attractive to the Samurai class in Japan, who later made Zen Buddhism their way of life, following their encounter with the martial-oriented Chán Lingji School introduced to Japan by Eisai in the 12th century.
Although, many martial arts schools in the West lay claims to the practice of spirituality only to note that their classes may include a mere 5-10 minutes maximum of silence before or at the end of their classes that they term as meditation, typically with little or no instruction to accompany it, it appears to me that mainstream martial arts in the West can and do tolerate some more religion.
Religion-based teachings mixed into a martial arts curriculum may prove a more popular concept than some Westerners may have thought at first.
For example, simply type into any internet search engine “Christian Martial Arts Association’s” or the like to see how many numerous links that can be clicked onto to. Though still a minority as compared to most schools in the West, these programs are more like ministries than merely martial arts schools.
Here's another interesting fact...according to the American Heritage Dictionary the term “Pagan” is defined as “one who is not Christian, Muslim or Jew; is a heathen”. So, by this definition Buddhism, Hinduism, or Earth-Based spiritual practices, such as Wicca, and new-age spiritual practices are all defined as Pagan. How many of you reader's are surprised?
This is most unfortunate as many martial arts of the East are not Muslim, Jew, or Christian and have Buddhist, Taoist, or Hindu origins, which have not only been ignored or forgotten but actually shunned by the general public in much of the West.
Yet, there are many practicing martial artists from all of those religious backgrounds!
To me, it is regrettable to be shunned in this manner since the spiritual philosophy of any tradition explains the “how’s” and “why’s” to the makeup of said tradition; these spiritual philosophy’s further explain why a particular form may have been created, or why a technique is done in a particular manner, or the application of techniques based on said philosophy. In turn, aspects of the art may have been lost due to such a lack of spiritual awareness of its martial origins.
There are still some martial arts schools, typically non-commercial schools, which do keep their deeper spiritual traditions as part of their training and syllabus. Often these schools are smaller and off-the-radar, as the general populous has the misinformation that these spiritual traditions are irrelevant to the art.
I have been a martial artist for a good long time and what I have seen is that on average these schools have students who are, more so well rounded, understanding esoteric energy (chi) and modern quantum mechanics in spirituality to great depths with application to the martial-way.
These same students often become exceptional healers in the ancient healing arts as a result of their curriculum as well; the thought being “if one can fix it, then you know how to destroy it as well”, and understanding that a whole person is of body, mind and spirit.
Martial arts like Hoshin, Kuroshinobi-do, and Kosho Hoho Yooga Kempo are examples of traditions which include spiritual, shamanic, or esoteric studies in their curriculum. Interestingly enough these martial arts seldom, if at all, compete in sports like competitions. Some have even been referred to, in ignorance, in popular martial arts chat rooms as a “Harry Potter wannabe’s”.
Unfortunately, due to decades of public misinformation the concept of compassion and the open understanding of other than Christian spiritual paths have been somewhat lost and many martial arts have misplaced a major component of its teachings as Pagans have in turn been ostracized.
Yes, each of us has the right to learn about other spiritual paths other than their own and no one should be forced to convert. Some choose to be educated and some do not. However, doesn’t tolerance make sense in at least being made aware of the spiritual relations in a particular martial tradition? Perhaps fear is a factor in preventing such tolerance in others.
I was exposed to some Shamanic, Earth-Based and Buddhist concepts in my martial training and my teacher was clear that it would be my choice whether to apply them outside of the curriculum or not. I was raised Roman Catholic and chose to see the similarities between spiritual paths and not the differences. Never was there ever an attempt of conversion like some of the mainstream churches we have today; but what it did do was allow the student (me in this case) awareness of the full art and an understanding of other spiritual traditions, and I for one am grateful for the experience and truly believe it has made me a better martial artist.
With a spiritual move toward the martial arts still being the “red-headed stepchild” within the Westernized industry, some practitioners may be looking for something more within their view. Some may be looking for kindred spirits and a community from a more complete warrior way (budo) such as a Pagan path solid in the ancestry of many traditions.
As I do agree with the separation of Church and State, I will always believe that mixing religion and education in public schools should always be one's personal choice, however, perhaps an open mind should always accompany the individual's learning process.
In closing, over the years I have seen many high-spirited American youth's relentlessly begging their parents to allow them to get involved in martial arts training, most lucky enough to join a school run by responsible people. However, there are still many times when those yet mostly inexperienced students may become faced with reality and the hard choice of when it's really time to defend themselves in an actual welfare-threatening confrontation.
When pushed hard for the first time, the average individual may find themselves filled with fear or anger plus a heart filled with uncontrolled adrenalin and seek an easy path to thwart a foe.
These unwitting individuals may find themselves in circumstances resembling an old western gunfight, with a Colt 45 pistol strapped to their sides...and an itchy trigger-finger!
Perhaps those instances are precisely the moments we each experience where religion, ethics, kindness, compassion, humanity and love comes into play; exactly when these types of serious life affirming choices need to be made?