Martial Arts Effectiveness and Religion

I'm talking through my hat when I say there are many instructors who extend their martial art practices to include not only spiritual growth, but religious thinking.

Much of good martial arts training focuses on combat effectiveness but also covers ancillary aspects of personal growth. I would like to think that this is a value add aspect of the training and in fact beneficial to combat effectiveness. Engaging in combat requires a person to be able to mentally focus on the task at hand (overcoming the opponent and reduction of risk) whilst being confronted with physical and mental intimidation.

Spiritual growth through the various forms of meditation and dedication through training creates maturity but more importantly is an activity that allows the practitioner to 'get into the zone.' Getting into the zone or mentally focused for optimal performance is an accepted part of modern sporting endeavours - but has been included in traditional training for a very long time.

Where we nowadays identify this aspect of traditional martial arts as being part of 'spiritual growth,' it was probably not always like this. Martial arts, mostly influenced by Asian culture, has practices intertwined with cultural norms. Where we now practice things such as bowing or other reverential motions or intonations, back in the day this was part of normal everyday living.

So when I visit a modern day martial art studio with instructors that have no cultural background that is similar to the source of its lineage AND I see that the instructor has taken some liberties to include additional religious information along with his training - I have to fight to keep a straight face.

I feel that very little value is added to 'accepted' practises leading to spiritual growth by forcing students to ingest semi-religious concepts labelled as Buddhist, Zen, Taoist, or what have you. Worse is to propagate these concepts in the name of Budo. Somewhat bad is to decorate your dojo with religious artifact to hint at a higher level purpose of your style.

If you want to transmit a religion, transmit a religion. Don't disguise it as a martial arts class.

And for goodness sake, if you find yourself having to continue talking about pseudo-religious Buddhist thought, at least please read about it. It's not at all about waving joss and bowing to a Buddha statue!

Please convince me that I'm talking through my hat. Anyone?


-- Colin Wee Traditional Taekwondo Techniques, Patterns, and Applications at the Traditional Taekwondo Blog. [Subscribe using email or RSS feeds] [Tkd Sitemap]. Colin is a martial art instructor with 25 years of experience across three continents. Colin leads a small Traditional Taekwondo group for adults in Perth, Western Australia. Connect with Colin on FaceBook and Traditional Taekwondo Group on FB.


Potatoe Fist said…
I'm intrigued. I don't have a lot of experience with tons of studios/classes/schools, but most of them introduce concepts of respect at the very least. The ones that have left me wondering the most are usually a very traditional Japanese or Chinese environment with a shomen or honorary plaque dedicated the original master.

I don't think I've ever been preached at, but I've definitely been educated as to expectations of behavior and showing respect to a degree that almost feels like worship. My current school has nothing that would even let someone know that we practice martial arts because it's a shared space. I'm just guessing that to have such things the school has to be single use in addition to being well off enough to display affectation.
SooShimKwan said…
Similarly, many of the cultural things, like bowing, taking of ones shoes, shaking hands while supporting it with the other, are often "mystified" by instructors that do not know the cultures and the practical context for such behaviours.

I remember I was told that when you shake hands, you put your hand under the other hand to show that you do not have a concealed weapon. And later, that your hand is there as a quick block in case your "friend" kicks you.

Living in Korea I have learned so many practical reasons for all those erroneous interpretations martial artists from outside Asia are often taught about such cultural customs.
Charles James said…
Where we nowadays identify this aspect of traditional martial arts as being part of 'spiritual growth,' it was probably not always like this. Martial arts, mostly influenced by Asian culture, has practices intertwined with cultural norms. Where we now practice things such as bowing or other reverential motions or intonations, back in the day this was part of normal everyday living.

[We seem to think this is an intricate part of the dojo and karate-do, it is not. We made assumptions because it was an Asian mystical practice and the Asians were not going to say otherwise. Reality is that this is something they do everywhere, not just the dojo.

Actually, from the comments of one who actually was there in many dojo (not me; someone else) the etiquette we think is critical to dojo is not even done in those classical dojo. Truth!]
Dan Djurdjevic said…
A great post Colin!

Many karate dojos continue the practice of bowing to the "shomen" (front wall) without even realising that this is part of Shinto ancestor worship (the shomen is where pictures of the ancestors are displayed).

But this kind of "unconscious" perpetuation of religious practice is at least unintentional and thus benign.

On the other hand, I find there are many schools that have created their own "brand" of new-age thought that combines elements of Buddhism (Zen and otherwise), Hinduism, Shintoism and Daoism (in both religious and philosophical guises) in some sort of vague mish-mash of "alternative" beliefs. Typically these involve talk of "energies"/chi/ki, chakras, higher planes etc.

This stuff has no place in a martial arts school. A martial art is not a religion and instructors should keep their personal beliefs to themselves.

The only distinction I draw is in relation to philosophy: I have found Daoist philosophy to highly pragmatic principles of conflict management.

However, to be clear, Daoist philosophy does not involve any religious thought - no deities and no "belief system": as with Western philosophy, it is a discipline of thought based in logic. And while I have read Daoist philosophy, I don't make this a centrepiece of my teaching: Even though it influences my approach to conflict management and, ultimately, technique, I approach my teaching with logic, not some sort of dogma.
Colin Wee said…
Hey Potatoe ... :-)

I personally have trained with three schools, but I have also been exposed to a whole lot more because of my work with IAOMAS and because I'm just 'friendly' ...

I've seen a school profess to teach zen buddhist principles, one that includes massage techniques, and a two which frequently 'hint' at religious growth through their verbal and written communication - though more substantive information is not forthcoming.

Not to be confused with the entire respect thing. That's not my grouse. :-)

GOod hearing from you!

Colin Wee said…
Soo Shim Kwan -

Hahahahah. Yeah!!! Good point!

It's funny what gets transmitted, doesn't it? I think at the very basic level, bowing and showing respect is common amongst many hard style traditions.

Apart from that, you can add on layers upon layers of additional behaviour without adding very much to the style or school or effectiveness.

Of course there are some people that get a kick out of that. I don't begrudge them the atmostphere of exoticism.

Colin Wee said…
Charles -

Thank you for visiting my humble blog.

As an Asian who would visit other dojos, I have confronted practices that are more asian than me. Of course I take it in my stride (like any Asian would do), and try to be as polite as possible. Usually I don't have a problem with this routine and courtesy - it's actually a positive if done well and helps transmit courtesy and control.

What I really am baffled with is when a school uses buddhism to 'improve' on the cultural feel or to add to the spiritual growth many aspire to as martial artists.


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