Are “spiritually meaningful” martial arts better than combat arts?

posted in: Self development | 27


Budō Inochi reader Jamie writes (via the brilliant Google + Martial Arts Forums):

Krav Maga Marines. By Department of Defence [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I read several of your blog posts. I appreciated and enjoyed them. However, my question is what is the difference between Martial Arts and hand-to-hand combat (please consider Krav Maga). I sense a Martial Art to have a meaningful/spiritual purpose? Whereas, Krav Maga is a practical function and if there is anything spiritual it would be the resolve of the practitioner.

I am considering studying true/real Martial Arts for several reasons. Most prominently for discipline and sense of purpose; quite similar to what I took away from your words. Based on my limited research and the various contrived (no spirit, little discipline and mixed-up world of Martial Arts as a pure business) it has been perplexing where to start. I tried Tai Chi but believe I did not have the proper instructor. Any advice on this would be sincerely appreciated.

Jamie’s sincere question will strike a chord with many martial arts practitioners.

But it also raises a profound question. Is it really correct to describe the martial arts with an overt “spiritual” element (such as some forms of Karate) as “true” or “real” martial arts, compared with a purely combat-oriented art such as Krav Maga?

On the one hand, much martial arts training has a spiritual element and with good reason; and this is an essential element of the practice for many of us. 

But sometimes, placing too heavy a focus on “spirituality” in the martial arts can be a red herring at best – and a potential trap at worst.

Here are five reasons to be wary of a martial art that primarily badges itself as “spiritual” – and a suggested way forward for Jamie and anyone else seeking the answer to this question . . .

 (ง ͠° ͟ʖ #)ง   – – – – –   ♥(ˆ⌣ˆԅ)

1. Spiritual development is often a long-term, disciplined process, which can be undermined by seeking the “spiritual” as an end in itself

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges explains this with a beautiful analogy in his short story: The Rose of Paracelsus.

The story opens with the venerable Paracelsus praying for a disciple, when a young man suddenly calls at his house, and offers to devote himself to an apprenticeship with the master. He says:

I want you to teach me the Art. I want to walk beside you on that path that leads to the Stone.

But he hasn’t understood. Paracelsus slowly explains:

The path is the Stone. The point of departure is the Stone. If these words are unclear to you, you have not yet begun to understand. Every step you take is the goal you seek.

Image credit: Pixabay

Then the young man explains that he will only devote himself on one condition. He has heard that Paracelsus can burn a rose into ashes, and then restore it again. He asks to see this miracle before he commits himself, and aggressively throws a rose into the fireplace where it burns to ashes.

Paracelsus makes no effort to restore the rose, and lets the young man believe that he is a fraud, with no magical powders.

The young man leaves with all his dreams shattered. But when he is gone, something strange happens

Paracelsus was then alone […] He poured the delicate fistful of ashes from one hand into the concave other, and he whispered a single word. The rose appeared again.

In other words, Paracelsus has no need of such a disciple, who insists on flashy miracles, and doesn’t see that the true miracle is wrought by the mundane, long-term daily discipline of training.

In a martial arts context, the young man might be compared to one who only really craves “spiritual enlightenment” or “secret techniques”. But the disciple Paracelsus truly longs for can be compared to the one who mindfully and humbly devotes themselves to studying and perfecting basics in the present moment.

2. Accepting and embracing your dark side is essential

If a martial art is taught in a overtly “spiritual” way, with a focus on becoming a “good” person – and the combat effectiveness elided – it probably stops being a martial art.

This isn’t necessarily wrong. I have at least one good friend who believes that Aikido is absolutely not a martial art; and he’s doing some wonderful, healing work via this philosophy.

But this isn’t the path Jamie is looking for.

Thorns on a Rose by Ingrid Taylar from Seattle, WA, USA [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Many have said that a martial art which rejects the dark realities of violence is incomplete. Philippe Voarino writes:

Before the achieved man’s paradise, one needs to go through hell. There is no initiation otherwise. That is the path of the warrior. The warrior needs confrontation. It is not knowledge but involvement that, down the martial path, will allow him to understand the vanity of destruction and the uselessness of combat.

[…] Morihei Ueshiba […] went from war to peace, progressing on that path, using martial art, its characteristics and respecting its rules.

[…] There is no creation without destruction. Life feeds on death – death feeds on life. The interdependency of opposites is that obvious reality the world continuously puts under our eyes. In the cycle of eternal return, all things feed and create their opposite.

[…] The solution does not consists in negating or excluding violence but knowing what to do with it

And there’s another side to this too – the personal darkness within ourselves, which shows up so readily in challenging moments on the mat.

William Miller writes:

Movement towards the achievement of wholeness or completeness […] is accomplished not only through through the continued infusion of goodness, righteousness, and morality (striving after the good), but also through the acceptance (the “owning”) and conscious incorporation of one’s dark and shadowy side into one’s self.

I am not a complete person until I incorporate into my conscious self that dark side of my person which is every bit as much a part of me as is that bright self which I parade before the world. – “Make friends with your shadow” – p12

The structured encounters with violence, risk and domination within martial arts training can often present perfect opportunities for meeting our dark side; which a less physical practice might not offer. 

3. A too-heavy focus on spirituality can mask and incubate a “slave morality” (Nietzsche)

Sadly, martial arts is well known for engendering a lot of hating. We’ve all seen practitioners of “hard” styles spitefully battling it out in the comments forum of YouTube.

Shaolin warrior monk Shi Yan Ming by Luigi Novi [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
But proponents of even the most spiritual styles aren’t immune from this kind of behaviour either. They just do it with a different focus. Ellis Amdur writes:

Some time in the early 80’s, I visited [a] t’ai chi school […] I had a nice time, got sheer friendliness from everyone there, even when they understood I practiced a lot of Japanese martial arts (the Taiwanese having no reason to love the Japanese). I was asked if I trained in any Chinese martial arts, and I said hsing i.

One of the seniors, about 50 years old simply freaked. Started screaming that hsing i was an art of violence and mayhem, that only thugs were drawn to such a thing, and that how could a hsing i practitioner walk into a spiritual discipline of peace, PEACE!!!!!!! like t’ai chi, observe practice, and not immediately abandon his thuggish art in shame?

Do you see the difference? Ordinary “non-spiritual” martial arts hating tends to focus on criticising the other art’s martial effectiveness – often some variant of: That would never work on the Street!

But when very “spiritual” practitioners are mean about other arts, they’re more likely to ignore martial effectiveness, and simply criticise other styles for being crude, violent and immoral – even if they don’t actually understand what’s inside the other practitioner’s head.

Nietzsche called this way of thinking “slave morality”. He argues that it’s typically seen in people who are unable to be strong and masterful, and who become jealous and resentful of those who are. They find a way to feel better by criticising the values of powerful people, and relabeling their own lack of power as superior – valorising humility, pity and so on.

I’ve written a personal story here about the time I trained in a creepily “nice” and spiritual dojo – and got my finger broken by a smiling fellow student, probably deliberately:

I wrote:

In this real-life example, there was a sensei who lacked the technical ability to consistently control or throw his training partners. In order to make this palatable, he rewrote the rules of martial arts, to make simulated Aikido and talk of “spiritual connection” (which he felt a master of) superior to the harsher physical realities of more assertive and even combative forms of Aikido or other martial arts.

Master morality, by way of contrast, is about nobility, strength and power. However, the tough martial artists bitching about other arts being ineffective are not examples of master morality either.

Instead, a splendid example of “master morality” can be found on the Defence Lab website:

You won’t find DL instructors on the web talking about which style is best, who is the toughest or even trying to talk a negative view around.

The reason behind this is simple; they are too busy teaching people that want to learn!

So too much focus on the spiritual at the expense of good technique can be wrong. But so too can the opposite (too much focus on martial effectiveness with nothing about morality). We’ll look at this in more depth at the end of this article.


4. A too-strong focus on spirituality can create a hot bed for spiritual abuse

A teacher or group that labels itself as “spiritual” may well be healthy and good. But it can also be a place of risk.

The idea of spiritual abuse has been explored in relation to Christian churches in depth, and we can borrow some of that learning to talk about martial arts. According to one Internet writer, red flags for a spiritually abusive church include:

– There is strong, control-oriented leadership.

– The use of guilt, fear, and intimidation by the leadership to manipulate members and keep them in line.

Followers are led to think that there is no other church quite like theirs […] Other churches are put down as being less “holy.” 

Does that ring any bells for thinking about abusive dojos?

Ronald Enroth suggests 11 questions to assess whether a church is healthy – or potentially spiritually abusive:

1. Does a member’s personality generally become stronger, happier, more confident as a result of contact with the group?

2. Do members of the group seek to strengthen their family commitments?

3. Does the group encourage independent thinking and the development of discernment skills?

4. Does the group allow for individual differences of belief and behavior, particularly on issues of secondary importance?

5. Does the group encourage high moral standards both among members and between members and non members?
(Look out for the dojo that claims in its documentation or website to place a special value on high moral standards, but has a clear double standard between those in leadership and ordinary members)

6. Are group members encouraged to ask hard questions of any kind?

7. Does the group’s leadership invite dialogue, advice and evaluation from outside its immediate circle?

8. Does the group allow for development in theological beliefs? (Martial artists could replace “theological” with “philosophical”)

9. Do members appreciate truth wherever it is found even if it is outside their group?

10. Is the group honest in dealing with nonmembers, especially as it tries to win them to the group?

11. Does the group foster relationships and connections with the larger society that are more than self-serving?

This list could form an excellent guide for how to choose a dojo. It also summarises beautifully the ways in which a dojo that badges itself as “spiritual” could hide some darker elements under the surface.

5. The elements that make a martial way “spiritual” are not necessarily what we expect

Image credit: Combat Krav Maga Tucson School

On one level, Krav Maga is clearly far less “spiritual” than many of the more traditional martial arts. See for example this poster from the Combat Krav Maga Tucson School: Attackers don’t care if you’ve found your spiritual center.

In the course of writing this article, I’ve spoken to Jamie about Krav Maga, as I’ve never trained in it myself. He explains:

It is in my considered opinion, among the most effective hand-to hand combat techniques in the world.

KM’s origin is simple street fighting efficacy, not an art or sport. It’s not recognized as an Olympic sport like Judo, but has a spiritual component. Albeit, very different from Martial Arts.

What does Jamie mean by this “different” type of spirituality? Perhaps the answer is found in this description from the South American Federation of Krav Maga website:

Krav Maga is an art in the essence of the word, for it transmits to the practitioner ideas and feelings. It creates a competitive way of life, where the student competes with himself and reaches his own goals alone. The training stimulates the will to surpass one’s self, not only physically, but in all aspects of the human being.

It is an eminently practical art, which through corporal work reaches the mind, the intellect, and spirituality. It is known for reaching the mind through the work of the body. Krav Maga does not state theoretical truths, it stimulates the individual search for them.

I’m not sure that the difference is so big after all. This description is written in purely secular language; but it actually describes very accurately the physical and mental discipline that probably constitutes most of the “real” spirituality of a martial art.  This includes: perfecting technique; overcoming fear; developing intent; making peace with one’s own mortality and so on.

I ask Jamie to elaborate on his views, and he explains:

Everything I’ve practised in Krav Maga is in keeping with what I’ve shared, it’s not art, graceful or spiritual (perhaps an element of spirituality as an expert one must act without fear, total confidence, innately, know the lethal outcome and embrace it, understand never to underestimate, be smart enough to run to fight another day, shoot rather than fight, understand the knife is more lethal than a gun, understand other forms of Martial Arts, understand utilization of toxins via syringe, never stop until the quarry is eliminated, be in outstanding physical condition, innovative to eliminate based upon circumstance, accept pain, understand materials such as wood, metal, compositions, plastic, etc., know basic chemistry,, biology, physiology, kinesiology+, never get spooked, etc. postscript: say your prayers because one might not win the noble fight.).

This recalls Rory Miller’s words: What [warriors] learned of truth and enlightenment (which is not the presence of wisdom but the absence of bullshit) they learned on the edge of death (Violence; a Writer’s Gude).

Indeed, if this kind of discipline is the way to spiritual development through a martial art, then the way Jamie describes his training experience to date, may (ironically) be more deeply “spiritual” in some ways, than the current-day teaching of many traditional martial arts, for all their esoteric trappings.

This interpretation of the Way cuts across all martial arts, whether they label themselves as spiritually meaningful or not. 


 (ง ͠° ͟ʖ #)ง   – – – – –   ♥(ˆ⌣ˆԅ)

Image credit – Gregg Henriques via Psychology Today

So what’s the answer for Jamie?

Like many of us, Jamie is seeking a school that offers a balance of BOTH martial effectiveness and personal development. 

One way to draw this all together is to return to Nietzsche’s idea of “slave” versus “master” morality”.

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D argues that both are equally important. 

So-called slave morality valorises equality, sensitivity and connection. In the 21st century, these values are incredibly important.

Meanwhile, master morality values dominance, status and pride. These may not sound as “nice” as the other values; but again they are critical for our development and effective functioning in society.

Henriques explains that these two sets of values are not in competition with each other, or mutually exclusive. Instead, he sees them as the axes of a graph.

Slave morality is the horizontal axis, and master morality is the vertical axis.

He combines these with some other concepts into a neat schematic, which you can read about here. Meanwhile, here’s a simplified version of Henriques’ graphic, adapted to answer Jamie’s question.

This can be summed up beautifully in the words of Paul Linden:

Love without power is ineffective. Power without love is brutality.

Being able to access both can be wonderful, as the top right quadrant of this graph shows.

None of the quadrants is “wrong” by any means. Men and women who dedicate themselves to the development of military skill for the protection of others – and who may or may not be interested in the more spiritual side of their art – are honoured in Edmund Burkes’ words:

We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm

But as regular readers will know, this blog is specifically dedicated to exploring that top-right corner – for those who desire to develop and integrate BOTH the yin and the yang (in/yō; “feminine”/”masculine” energies; and so on).

 (ง ͠° ͟ʖ #)ง   – – – – –   ♥(ˆ⌣ˆԅ)


So Jamie has asked a searching question – should I go for a more spiritually-focused martial art, or a more combat-effective art.

The answer I’d like to give him is: aim high and go for a school that gives you both – and keep searching until you find it, perhaps using some of the hints in this article to help you.

This article started with the image of a rose; and the rose teaches us that it is possible to be beautiful – and also have thorns to defend yourself – at the same time.

Because it’s all about the integration of our power and our love. To conclude, I’m going to hand over to Budō Inochi reader, Aiki_grrl, who writes:

I feel the question, which separates the spiritual and the practical, is misleading. I would argue that no matter how good the techniques of any system are, they’ll be ineffective if the practitioner cannot deliver them with a martial state of mind/being.

We need to be truly present in the moment to sense and respond to an attack correctly, without our judgement being clouded by ego and emotion. We need to have made peace with the decision to use violence if necessary but also have the maturity to avoid conflict and resolve it peacefully wherever possible. I’m sure we’re all met Budoka who are the most kind, generous and empathetic people – and who we also know, on an instinctive level (call it “ki”…?) it’d be a VERY bad idea to attack them. People like this are my ideal of a spiritually evolved martial artist. 

How to get there is of course a whole new question; but for now I think this description says it all. Wishing you all the best Jamie, and hope to stay in touch! 

Related articles:

Why Elsa and Anna from “Frozen” are the ultimate martial arts role models

♥♥ Big thanks to Jamie Korsen, Aiki_grrl and Roman Leohar, for incredibly helpful feedback and input on the first version of this article.

27 Responses

  1. Joelle White

    “the true miracle is wrought by the mundane, long-term daily discipline of training.” Amen and amen! Wonderful article, Kai! I love the church analogy. When my daughter started Karate, I actually did “screen” the College Dojo and later the Old Home Dojo like my husband and I screened churches 🙂 Great answer to a tough question!!! Thanks for another well-thought-out article!

    • Kai

      Hi Joelle, that’s interesting what you say about “screening” your dojos in the same way as “screening” a church. Would love to understand a little more about what you actually planned out and did here, either in another comment, or via pm, or even something about it on your own blog! take care Kx

      • Joelle White

        Not much to say actually because the dojos passed my scrutiny with flying colors very quickly 🙂 By then my daughter had some “street smarts” of her own, so she was able to make her own judgments and answer my questions. Nine months later I joined her 🙂

  2. Gunther

    The Russian Martial Arts Systema has a spiritual side which is root in the Russian Orthodox Christian faith where the belief is that everything that happens to us, good or bad, has only one ultimate purpose and that is for a person to understand himself/herself. However, I don’t think the spiritual side deterred the Russians from using it for their own special forces for many years when they were under Communist rule. As a matter of fact, Systema was abolished by the Communists when they came into power; however, they realized how good it was and brought it back to life for their special forces; otherwise, they would have probably adopted Kava Maga or another martial art

    • Kai

      Hi Quentin, yes it’s uncannily close to the bone isn’t it – I guess human nature is fairly consistent and so the same risks / issues could arise even across such different settings, when “spirituality” is at stake . . .

  3. Quentin Cooke

    Now, I’ve been reflecting on this article and it made me focus on an issue that has been bugging me for some time and that is, what do people mean when they talk about spirituality, especially within a martial art. As you know I take a pretty holistic approach to my personal study and that is reflected in the way I teach. I know what mind is and I know what the body is, but when we talk of spirit, I’m not so sure. I get a sense of it, but I find it hard to define, which may surprise you. I’d love to see you write a blog on exactly what martial artists mean when they refer to developing the spirit. I aim to develop the whole person, and help myself and my students to fulfil their full potential, which may involve spirit, but I refer to it rarely, because it’s a bit ethereal and almost impossible to define. Or is it? Now that’s the big question. And if we can define this, in practical terms how do we develop it in a measurable way through the practice of anything, let alone through martial arts?

    • Kai

      Hi Quentin, maybe you have isolated the real question at stake here?

      I would absolutely love to explore this more, as you suggest – perhaps I could send you a draft article at some point for your thoughts & input if you don’t mind . . . ?

      • Gunther

        How does one develop spirituality through martial arts if that person is an Atheist or an Agnostic?

        • Kai Morgan

          Hi Gunther, it’s absolutely possible for someone to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic and also be a spiritual “seeker”. If you have a look at Quentin’s last comment, he suggests a broad idea for a new article – I’ll endeavour to capture your question within it too – may need to consult with you in the process, if that is ok 🙂

  4. Aiki_grrl

    Hi Kai,
    Thanks for another thought provoking article. I feel the question, which separates the spiritual and the practical, is misleading. I would argue that no matter how good the techniques of any system are, they’ll be ineffective if the practitioner cannot deliver them with a martial state of mind/being.
    We need to be truly present in the moment to sense and respond to an attack correctly, without our judgement being clouded by ego and emotion. We need to have made peace with the decision to use violence if necessary but also have the maturity to avoid conflict and resolve it peacefully wherever possible. I’m sure we’re all met Budoka who are the most kind, generous and empathetic people – and who we also know, on an instinctive level (call it “ki”…?) it’d be a VERY bad idea to attack them. People like this are my ideal of a spiritually evolved martial artist. Just my two cents, thanks again for the blog!

    • Kai Morgan

      Dear Aiki_grrl, thank you so much for your brilliant feedback. As soon as I saw your comment, I realised that what you said, was where the conclusion should have gone, so I’ve inserted it into the end of the article – hope you don’t mind 🙂 take care; I am truly loving having your input into the blog, thanks again

    • Jamie

      Hi Akia_Girl,

      I believe unwaveringly we are on the same page based upon your comments.

      I am Jamie, the KM practitioner mentioned. Furthermore, I wish I had all the answers.

      However, please respectfully understand my position regarding your comments.


      -techniques of any system are…ineffective if the practitioner cannot deliver them with a martial state of mind/being.

      I’m not sure I understand what you mean by, ‘a martial state of mind/being.’

      Henceforth, can you please reply with an elaborated definition as your ‘two cents’ are important.

      Kai, was kind enough to help me with profound advice and I’m still in a conundrum.

      I’m here to learn; no judgements.

      Thank you in advance. It is appreciated.



      • aiki_grrl

        Hi Jamie,

        Thanks for your question, I appreciate this opportunity to think more deeply. It’s a difficult thing to articulate but I will try.
        I am inspired by senior Budoka I’ve faced (taking uke). They are all quite different individuals with different personalities but they all have the same quality. There’s a kind of quiet, still, self-contained focus and ferocity, a kind of psychic force that’s projected at you. There are no openings to attack and you just feel like it’s either profoundly foolish and/or futile to attack them. Then when you do attack, because that’s your job as uke, they throw and/or pin you effortlessly, and you know deep down you’re defeated. I think this is what Takeda Sokaku (Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu) meant when he defined “aiki” as the ability to win without fighting. It is what I meant by martial state of mind/being. I think you need this mind set to deliver a really effective technique against a non-compliant opponent. This is only my opinion, which of course I have learned from my excellent Sensei (I own him that and so much more). Hope that helps to clarify my position, if you have further questions, comments or critiques please send them my way.

  5. Jamie

    Hi Kai,

    As suggested, I’ve read reader comments and find them interesting.

    One of my favorite is from, Mr Cooke. He seemingly is contemplating spiritualism (furthermore, as a teacher, he has a profound effect on many vs. an individual). I believe he is on to something regarding measurement by questioning it.

    Also, im courious as to where it was posted and promoted (you obviously have a great following that adores you.). The reason I’m courious is based upon demo
    /psychographics as I’m trying to contemplate responses based on contextual relevance.




    • Kai

      Sorry for this slow reply Jamie, your two comments went into Spam fir some reason.

      Quentin actually writes a blog himself if you are interested in reading more from him:

      As for posting and promotion. I don’t really do anything, just send the articles out to my subscribers and put it on the G+ MA forum (where I met you!)

      The readers are mostly from the U.K and US with various other countries esp European.

      Sorry that doesn’t give you much to go on, but that is my answer!

  6. Ando Mierzwa

    Much love and much power… a worthy goal, indeed! 🙂

    A quick thought… I have met spiritual people in less than spiritual places, and beastly people in spiritual places. So, for me, there is no such thing as a “spiritual” place or a “spiritual” art. Spirit is a personal matter. Either you’re open to exploring yourself on levels beyond the physical or you’re not.

    Sometimes the people who SAY they’re interested in spiritual development are the least open-minded, and the people who come to the martial arts thinking they only want to “get in shape” are amazed to see their lives changed in more profound ways.

    There really is no way to predict how your journey will unfold, so just focus on the work. No matter which art you study, without doing the work, you will gain nothing physically or spiritually.

    Another great article, Kai!

    • Kai Morgan

      Dear Sensei Ando, thank you for your brilliant comment, which both fleshes out AND summarises what I was trying to say very nicely indeed! All the best . . . X

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