The Spirit of Martial Arts.

The origin of martial arts is unclear. Buddhist statuary dating from the 1st Century BC indicates that the source was in India from where it travelled to Western China with Buddhism. There were forms of martial arts practiced in ancient Greece and in the Olympics there was an event known as the ‘pancratium’ in which contestants were not allowed to bite or gouge but could do everything else (hitting, strangling, limb twisting). The pancratium gave rise to western wrestling. There was also a form of ancient boxing in which contestants had their fists wrapped in hide and were allowed to punch and were prohibited from throwing or kicking. This gave rise to western boxing. In ancient Japan sumo was the first martial art (c.29BC Emperor Suinin) and continues to this day.

As we know them today martial arts commenced with Bodhidharma (known in Japanese as Daruma Daishi) who was the 28th Buddhist Patriarch after Sakyamuni. His predecessor was Prajnatara.

After the death of Prajnatara, Bodhidharma remained in India for some years then news came back from the East. The news concerned misinterpretation of scriptures and upon learning this he resolved to correct the teachings. Bodhidharma travelled to the Kingdom of Liang in Western China probably around the 5th century. This kingdom was ruled by Emperor Wu (China then comprised several kingdoms each with its own Emperor) who was a noted scholar and one who supported the newly arrived Buddhist Teachings. He was welcomed in the capital of Chin -lung by Emperor Wu who had, over the previous decade, commissioned the building of several temples devoted to Buddha. He also translated the Teachings into Chinese and the temples became training grounds for priests and monks attracted to the new philosophy.

At that time the Chinese of Liang were highly formalistic. They constructed ornate temples, monasteries and Pagodas; burnt incense, practiced sacred dancing and chanted the scriptures. However the Chinese believed these practices were for the liberation of the soul after death and so upon his arrival Bodhidharma was bound to conflict with the Emperor. For Buddhists the point of practice is to achieve enlightenment in this life. Lord Buddha was a man who achieved enlightenment, he was not a divinity. Upon this theological difference the two men would never agree and the outcome was that Bodhidharma was expelled from the kingdom. He travelled north to the kingdom of Wei and in the capital of Lo-yang he took shelter in the monastery of Shao-lin –ssu. Legend has it that he knelt facing a cliff and remained in meditation for nine years apparently suffering the loss of the use of his arms and legs. We see that from India also came the practice of yoga which the Chinese called Ch’an (from the Sanskrit dhyani meaning meditation) and which became known later in Japan as Zen.

The basis of Bodhidharma’s teaching was that the body and spirit were united and only when the two were united and the body prepared in discipline could the practitioner achieve Buddha hood. He brought with him from India two texts on military arts, the I-chin-ching and the Hsien-sui-ching. The former was a practical guide and formed the basis of the Shao-lin–ssu martial arts.

As the Emperor Wu waged his dissatisfaction against Bodhidharma the Shao-lin monasteries were sacked and the priests scattered in much the same manner as the current spread of Tibetan Buddhism which has resulted from the 1948 to current time invasion of Tibet by the Chinese Government. (Tibet was incorporated within the Mongol Empire in the 13th Century. It was never Chinese.)

Thus the Shao-lin –ssu methods were carried to the Korean peninsula, and thence to Japan, Mongolia and the southern, eastern and northern regions of China where they were adapted to suit the local conditions and physiques. For instance the southern Chinese were boating and river people who relied on wet rice farming. They were slim of built and use their upper bodies (rowing, bending to plant…) so their style became the fast boxing styles whereas in the North the larger Han Chinese (dry land farmers who relied on foot for transport and engaged in hunting) developed stronger standing styles utilising kicks and leg techniques. The Mongolians, dependent upon horse transport, developed wide (horse-stance) styles. In Manchu in the west the style was based on the fighting methods of animals and birds. Thus the proliferation of styles of martial arts came about.

After the death of Bodhidharma martial arts became separated from the Buddhist teachings and developed into warlike techniques used for overcoming enemies. However a few isolated priests and practitioners managed to retain the intent of the unification of body and spirit and this has survived to this day. Today students may learn martial arts for combat without spirit or they can learn martial arts as a secular spiritual discipline. This latter aspect is what I wish to explicate now.

So we practice and practice, many years of hard training until the discipline itself is a part of us and we can execute what is necessary without thought. This is close to the Buddhist notion of "Beginner’s Mind" or "Empty Mind". And this is exactly what we have to do to first notice and then act upon our habits, mores, customs and selective memory. In the unconscious state the individual is ruled by conditioning, really they can only react.

Thus we must learn to notice and this process starts slowly. After some effort we discover that there is a habit. We find that our attitude is not ours at all but one we got from our parents through osmosis. So we grasp that perception and recognise the habit. Then we can set about becoming free of it. It is the same with custom. If you want to see how your inherited custom affects you then go to a foreign country, somewhere with a different language and cultural practice. There your custom will show clearly because there is something opposite to compare it with. For example in the West the drinking of alcohol is a cultural practice. It is lawful and in many households the children, upon reaching a certain age, are allowed to participate with the adults in having a beer or a glass of wine. Now that child grows and goes to a Muslim country. Suddenly alcohol is not permitted so the person can clearly see their cultural preference. (It is usually via opposites that we define ourselves.)

Gradually we come to recognise our habits and unconscious practices inherited from our family of origin or local culture. Zen is marvellous at helping us to recognise such traits because it attacks habit wherever they arise. When I was in the Dojo in Japan they did crazy things, like wake us up at an odd hour and tell us to get on a bus which would take us to a park or perhaps near Fujiyama. All the Europeans would complain;
" this is crazy I should be asleep!" "Why are we doing this, it makes no sense?" And so on. Our habits were challenged and we didn’t like it at all. Then came the day when resistance was worn out and suddenly something marvellous happened. It is a feeling and hard to describe but in short it was a lightness, a feeling of power, of knowing and a feeling of being connected to the nature all around.

So this is the point and reward of learning martial arts. Not to fight an outside enemy but to fight the internal battle. The true warrior knows that the only battle is with the self. An example: once a Feudal Lord called his Samurai and told him to go and execute a man who had been found guilty by the law. The Samurai duly sought out the man and just as he was about to draw his sword the man spat at him and called his mother horrible names. The Samurai put his sword back and went home. What happened? Well the man infuriated the Samurai with his insults and the Samurai realised he was personally reacting to these insults. In such a state he could not have ‘Empty Mind’, he could not just act dispassionately so he didn’t act at that time.

The final battle for all of us is of course death. This is the final enemy and we cannot overcome this enemy, He always wins. So the practice is slowly preparing us to face death like a warrior, with dispassion and emptiness. Many unprepared people die in terror and fear and loathing. Their life is not investigated and they have not made preparation and so death takes them by surprise. It is said that a warrior is rewarded in the following way. When death comes it must wait. Death must stand aside while the warrior performs his last dance, the dance of a warrior. Thus death becomes a glorious affair not full of fear but full of awareness and acceptance. (In truth there is no death but each individual must discover this for themself, it cannot be told. This is the reward for the warrior - that s/he discovers who s/he really is which is not the body/mind ruled by conditioning and reflex.)

While it is not expected that readers go out and suddenly start learning martial arts or the invitation is here for readersto begin to watch out for their habits, customs and memories. We can stop and ask, "who is really choosing this? Or, is this reacting from habit?" When we discover that it is habit that moves us then we can do something about it. We can ask, "what is the highest way to respond to this situation? What is the need here? What values are important in this situation?" When you start to behave like this then you are starting on the warrior’s path because the true martial arts are not concerned with outside enemies, they are concerned with one’s inner life.

Take courage, try and make the body fit, practice sitting quietly on a regular basis (20 minutes a day at least) and most of all start noticing your reaction to situations. The first step is just to notice!
Be at Peace.