What are the martial arts? From where did they come? What benefits do the martial arts offer? Are they religious? Can they lead impressionable young minds in a religious direction?
The martial arts are those activities that teach a participant not only how to fight but also how to think and live. Examples include Judo, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Tang Soo Do, Kung Fu, Hwarang Do, Akido, Ninja, and Han Pul. Western fighting arts, such as boxing, fencing, and wrestling, teach how to fight with only one kind of opponent and in controlled circumstances; a martial artist is more comprehensive in his or her training. A student learns how to fight many kinds of opponents under many circumstances. One also learns “The Way” to live in harmony with the world.
Joe Hyams, in his book, Zen and the Martial Arts, says, “…the martial arts in their finest form are much more than a physical contest between two opponents-a means of imposing one’s will…upon another. Rather, for the true Master…all the martial arts are essentially avenues through which they can achieve spiritual serenity, mental tranquillity and the deepest self-confidence.” (p. 9) This is why martial arts are not just another sport. Unlike baseball or basketball, martial arts are as much spiritual and intellectual as they are physical.
Any study of martial arts history is hindered. First, no early historian accurately recorded the emergence of the activity. Therefore, any information about the origins and founders of martial arts comes only through the oral traditions kept by the art’s masters. The other obstacles to historical study are the exaggerations and prejudices held by one style over another. Martial art styles became identified with their host country; nationalistic pride was incorporated into teaching each style.
In spite of sparse historical information, it is generally agreed that martial arts began around A.D. 100 in China or northern India. While fighting arts were certainly studied in the armies of various dynasties, the real development of martial arts evolved in Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian monasteries. There were two reasons for this. First, the high regard for self-development and control held by these religions provides a philosophical basis for the study of martial arts. The assumption is that one cannot have a sound mind without also having a sound, disciplined body. From that belief, the monks felt that martial art instruction provided an excellent way to teach younger monks skills in self-control and concentration-essentials for their spiritual well-being. Also, the monks were tired of being easy targets for robbers and traveling bandits. Martial arts provided them the protection they needed without having to carry the burdensome armor and weapons of an Oriental warrior.
In spite of the complexities involved in the religions that supported martial arts, the central philosophy behind most contemporary martial arts is Zen Buddhism. The central ideal in this faith is the attainment of “Enlightenment.” Enlightenment is a state of mind in which one sees unity beyond the contradictions and thereby enters a state of total peace and harmony with oneself, others, and the environment. It is difficult to perceive any Buddhist teaching in the classroom because the masters teach the art’s technique without relating its religious significance. They simply wait to see if the student is perceptive enough to discover a deeper significance. The reasoning behind this teaching method stems from the Eastern belief that true knowledge is experiential. Since true knowledge cannot be explained, the only option for an instructor is to show the student how he or she can discover the truth.
Learn humility. Martial arts are difficult for Westerners to learn because of cultural pride and arrogance. Humility assumes that the instructor knows something we do not.
Conquer haste. Martial arts are a process. It takes years to master. According to its philosophy, one is ready to learn martial arts after attaining a black belt.
Chi development. Chi is one’s invisible life force or energy. This is the power that enables mothers to lift cars off their children-this power permits one to do the seemingly impossible. This energy is controlled by the mind but centered in the middle of one’s thorax.
Discipline. Chi can be strengthened and trained in the individual by discipline. This is accomplished by physical exertion and the accompanying mental focus needed to guide that exertion. The martial arts teach that one cannot have a good mind without a good body and vice versa.
Tranquillity. True martial artists do not bully people; they are at peace with themselves. They realize that true happiness and peace come when one accepts him- or herself for what he or she is and not through subordinating others.
An appraisal of martial arts is complicated by a tremendous amount of ignorance and misunderstanding of martial arts. One must remember that not every business claiming to teach martial arts truly do so. Like many others, martial arts instructors have compromised their teachings of to the almighty dollar. Therefore one must distinguish true martial arts schools from the pseudo-schools. While the differences are easy to detect, one must remember that a school does not need to have all of the characteristics listed below in order to be a traditional or non-traditional school. Essentially, the difference is one of degree.
Non-profit or little attention paid to finances.
Uses the language of the country in which their style originated.
Uses the stripe promotion system or does not use belt system at all.
Has strong prohibitions against misusing the martial art.
Teaches the philosophy of the martial art.
Instructor has solid credentials. Does the instructor’s age match his or her black belt degree? Each degree should take 5-7 years to attain. A Master (4th degree) must be at least 30 years old to have legitimate rank.
Strong emphasis on money.
Little or no attention paid to the virtues of martial arts.
Instructors are egocentric, constantly seeking praise.
Studios are franchised.
Like many activities, whether it is right or wrong for an individual to be involved in martial arts depends upon personal conscience, the particular school, and the strength of one’s commitment. The following can occur when martial arts are correctly taught:
Safe physical conditioning and coordination. Unlike other sports, there are very few injuries in martial arts. This is a result of the experience and training of the instructors and of the knowledge gleaned from 1800 years of history.
Self-confidence. A person who knows that someone cannot physically hurt him or her feels less intimidated by verbal assaults.
Discipline. The martial arts take great mental and physical effort. Training helps one to learn how to adjust to difficult circumstances.
Respect. One learns to acknowledge the rights of others.
Self-aggrandizement. One can become proud of achieving humility.
Self-sufficiency. While everyone needs to live independently, an overemphasis on self-sufficiency can result in a socially maladjusted individual.
Enhanced destructiveness. While it is possible to physically hurt others in a violent outburst, martial arts training can turn what would have been only a fat lip into a broken jaw.
Conversion to Buddhism. If one takes seriously the philosophy of martial arts, it may lead to a conversion to an Eastern religion.
Remember that a child’s susceptibility to Eastern philosophy depends on how intellectually capable that child is. Many instructors only teach fighting techniques to people under the age of thirteen.
Due to the potential dangers, parents need to determine whether their child has the emotional and religious stability to learn what the art has to teach without being converted by it.
If a child has many phobias, martial arts do an excellent job helping a child to rise above them. They also provide the child protection from kidnappers and other criminals.
Martial arts training can be expensive (up to $50 a month). Parents should consider the financial obligations before enrolling their child into martial arts training.