Humans have been endowed with the natural impulse to survive dangerous situations, using whatever tools are available. If caught in such a situation, man could possibly wield a weapon to defend himself but weapons are not always available. Therefore, he needed to learn how to use his own body as a weapon. Thus opens the history books on the martial arts.
The collective martial practices such as Karate, Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu can be classified as arts, sports, or merely hobbies, depending on your point of view.
There is no denying the opinion, however, that today’s media have exploited these practises to provide a meaty, violent feast to sate the public’s increasing hunger for extreme, brutal, visceral armchair entertainment.
Popular films and TV programmes glamorise high flying, lightning fast, split second combat. As a result, new students in dojos all across the world walk into their first training session focusing on a misconception influenced by greedy media moguls.
The real path followed by true martial artists, Budō, is one of continual improvement in areas such as compassion, humility and respect.
In Japanese, the word Budō is associated with the country’s many and varied native styles including Karate, Jujitsu and Ninjutsu. It’s normally used to refer to the path, attitude and mentality that should be sought. Direct translation of this word is difficult due to the multi-layered meaning within its kanji characters.
The two characters that make up Budō are, bu (武:ぶ) and do (道:ど). Bu has been observed by scholars as being made up of a depiction of crossed halberds, a flick of blood and the character for stop. Do is derived from Sanskrit and means path to enlightenment. Taken literally, Budō means a way to stop the conflict.
Budō represents the peak state of an ancient art form that has developed over a millennia. As with all things that evolve, nothing is ever perfected until having gone through a lengthy refinement process. As neatly coined by legendary swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi “the finest steel must first go through the hottest fire”.
Martial arts are thought to have originated in China in around 600BC. Early legends tell of a wondering Buddhist monk named Daruma (Bodhidharma in Sanskrit), who stumbled upon the Shaolin Buddhist monastery in Henan. Recognising a fellow pupil of the Enlightened One, the monks welcomed the wondering sage.
Over the following years, Daruma trained the monks in the Indian yoga practices that are used daily the world over to fortify health. After years of practice, it was discovered that these exercises could be refined and developed into an effective method of self defence, founded on Buddhist ethics and encouraging use of restraint when dealing with aggressive individuals. “Use only the necessary force, no more” was at the basis of their fighting art, so attackers quickly learned that the seemingly docile celibates were fierce and skilled fighters, so swiftly backed off.
All this occurred in a time in Chinese history called the Warring States period. The political climate was tempestuous at best. With warlords constantly vying for power, and region borders constantly shifting because of turbulent alliances and battles, the temple was in a no man’s land of rocky mountainside and steep, rough terrain. Situated in Henan, a mountainous province of China, the Shaolin Temple was assaulted and attacked repeatedly by renegade gangs of warriors from the surrounding provinces.
These cut-throat brigands, wielding swords, staffs and bows were effortlessly and consistently repelled by generation after generation of highly skilled, gentle, meek Buddhists. These sages did not seek violence; in fact they would have done virtually anything to avoid conflict.
What they sought was spiritual enlightenment. The rigorous physical training, almost torturous in its intensity, was viewed as a means of achieving their goal. The constant demands on the body forged a mind of steel that was invincible and the attitude was taken that whilst your body may be smashed, your mind and soul will always be your own. Death was no longer a fear, or even a concern. Death was merely a stage in journey of life, death and rebirth.
Worry not my dear reader, although sounding terrifying, this level of dedication is unnecessary. But you can still garner many fruitful advantages from regularly attending an evening or weekend class.
Frequent trips to your local Karate dojo will provide you with noticeable improvement in focus and concentration, essential skills in today’s hectic society. Increase in awareness, honed through regular seiza meditation at the beginning and end of classes, can yield results in months.
Founded on the Japanese island of Okinawa, Karate was developed as a way for the peasantry to defend themselves from the ruling Samurai class. Laws banning anyone not Samurai from possessing weapons meant that Karate, meaning “the way of empty hand”, had to be practised in total secrecy. Passed down from master to apprentice, this style migrated to America after the Second World War. Returning G.I’s, having received formal instruction whilst serving in The Pacific, started to spread the art all over the US, training students in halls across the country.
From here, Karate’s prolific and explosive growth in popularity has spread it to nearly every country in the world. Talks of it being introduced as an Olympic sport are currently underway.
Tae Kwon Do, a native art of Korea, with its focus on high kicks, drastically improves muscle flexibility and strength, which is very useful for any sportsperson.
The development of Tae Kwon Do is an integral part in the history and development of the Korean state. The oldest Korean martial art was an amalgamation of unarmed combat styles developed by the three rival Korean kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje.
Young men were trained in unarmed combat techniques to develop strength, speed, and survival skills. The most widely practised of these techniques was subak, with taekkyeon being the most popular of the segments of subak. Those who demonstrated strong natural aptitude were selected as trainees in the new special warrior corps, called the Hwarang. It was believed that young men with a talent for the liberal arts may have the grace to become competent warriors. These warriors were instructed in academics as well as martial arts, learning philosophy, history, a code of ethics and equestrian sports.
This combination of subjects that formed the young warrior’s education closely resembles the regime that was followed by the Samurai of ancient Japan. Their syllabus included flower arranging and Cha-no-yu (the tea ceremony).
The inclusion of artistic as well as military arts highlights the nature of martial arts as a way of keeping the peace. Warriors displaying excessive zeal when practising the more aggressive arts were given extra classes in the calmer, peaceful arts to temper their fiery nature and instill a sense of humility and restraint. This echoes the martial arts Buddhist roots.
So, far from being the violent, undisciplined, aggressive braggarts media portrays us to be, martial artists form the very peak of society, a society which is today in the midst of a pandemic of casual violence. Do people do martial arts to learn how to fight, or are we actually fighting to learn?