Budō Inochi reader Jamie writes (via the brilliant Google + Martial Arts Forums):
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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
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)
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”.
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.
Slave morality is the horizontal axis, and master morality is the vertical axis.
This can be summed up beautifully in the words of Paul Linden:
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!
♥♥ Big thanks to Jamie Korsen, Aiki_grrl and Roman Leohar, for incredibly helpful feedback and input on the first version of this article.