The Path of the Spiritual Martial Artist Redux

     I wrote the original "Path of the Spiritual Martial Artist" over 10 years ago for Taekwondo Times Magazine.  About a year later, it was also one of the first articles I published here at Integral Strength.  But a lot can change in 10 years - at least, on a personal note.  Although my view of Zen, martial arts, and Buddhism has not changed in the past decade, my maturing of it has changed.  After all, one of the foundational views of Buddhism is impermanence, which means that everything - and I do mean everything - is constantly in flux, and, therefore, constantly changing.  So I thought that it might be a good time to review this original Integral Strength article, and make changes where I see that changes need to be made.  I hope you find it informative, whether or not your love is martial arts, Eastern philosophy and spirituality, or both!
     (By the way, I looked everywhere for the Taekwondo Times this article was originally published in.  I'm sure that it has to be somewhere around my house - I think it was a 2008 or 2009 issue - but couldn't find it.  So... if anyone can find this issue of TKDT or find out which issue it is in, please let me know.)
CS demonstrates a high side kick

The Path of the Spiritual Martial Artist
4 Keys for Cultivating Inner Peace, Improving Your Martial Arts, and Becoming a Better Human Being
     For centuries, the path of martial arts and spirituality have gone hand in hand.  In recent years, however, as various martial arts have made their way to the west and become more and more popular, the spiritual side of the martial arts has declined.
     Martial arts as a spiritual path have been replaced by martial arts that are both materialistic and egocentric.  What a shame!
     This article is intended for all martial artists who would like to pursue their martial arts in a more spiritual and mental, not just physical, manner.  After all, if you’re practicing a martial art that is not equally physical, mental, and spiritual, then you’re not practicing real martial arts.  (And, as I have said elsewhere on this blog in years past, martial arts without philosophy and spirituality is nothing more than brutality!)
     Here are 4 essential keys for walking the path of the spiritual martial artist.
Key #1: Stop your Attachment
     As not only martial artists, but also as human beings, we are constantly attaching and clinging to things in our life.  In martial arts, for example, practitioners are always attaching to their way of doing things.  Any of this sound familiar: “My style is better than your style.”  “High kicks are inferior to low kicks.”  “All he can do is win at tournament karate—he would get killed in a street fight.”  The list of things martial artists say about other practitioners and other styles could go on and on (just flip to the “letters” section of any martial arts publication, if you don’t believe me - or, even worse, go to many "comments" sections on different martial arts sites).
     In life, it is no different.  People cling to their way of living and thinking, even when that particular way brings them pain and suffering.
     The most common attachment in this world we live in is to materialistic things.  Never satisfied with what we have, we always want our life to be better.  People think their lives would only be better if they had more income, or more friends, or a different job, or different children or spouses; perhaps they even think their life would be better if they just had a different spiritual path to follow.
     Actually, all it takes to be happier is to stop your attachment to these things!
     I once read a Zen saying that went something like this: “True happiness is found in accepting your life as it is, and detaching from the need for it to be any different.”
     Just think how much better our martial arts can be if we stop clinging to ideas and concepts, and instead embrace all ideas and concepts.
     It was Bruce Lee who said we should embrace the useful things in martial arts, and rid ourselves of everything that is useless.  Yet many of Lee’s followers, in attempting to capture the essence of Lee’s teachings, have become attached to Jeet Kune Do as a specific art, even when some of it might need to be discarded for something else.  Of course, not all Jeet Kune Do artists do this—I’m just using it as an example.  Attachment to a certain style is even worse among other martial arts.
     Before I close this section on attachment, remember this: You can become attached to whatever you want, but you can take none of it with you when this life is over—not even your prized martial skills!
     An ancient Chinese proverb says, “Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed—that is human.”  And a Christian poem says, “The shroud holds no pockets.”
Key #2: Practice Mindfulness
     Many of us who live in the west don’t even know what being mindful means.  For many, all they know about it is what they’ve heard in a Star Wars movie.  “Be mindful of the force, young Skywalker.”  (Or something like that.)  How unfortunate this is, especially when you come to understand just how important mindfulness can be—for everyday life and for cultivating martial arts prowess.
     No matter how hard we practice martial arts, or how hard we meditate, or how hard we strive to be a better human being, none of it will matter if we don’t strive to practice every moment of every day.  Life is the real teacher (of both martial arts and spirituality) and practice is this moment—right now.
     But how do we do this.  In fact, practicing mindfulness is a lot harder than you think.  (Otherwise, it wouldn’t be called practice.)  Why is it so hard?  Because our mind—whether we want it to or not—is constantly thinking about other things, constantly creating different realities of what is in our minds.  But it doesn’t have to be so hard if you will do a few different things.
     First, try to pay full attention to what you are doing.  As a martial artist, you already have a heads up on this compared to the average person on the street—whether you realize it or not.  When you spar, for instance, you must be very mindful of what you are doing, in each and every moment of the sparring session.  Otherwise, you are sure to get kicked, or punched, or overcome by a take-down.  It is the same when you are practicing forms.  If you are not mindful of your technique—of every punch, kick, or stance—then your form will surely suffer.
     Another thing that is helpful for cultivating mindfulness is to just do one thing at a time.  A Zen saying goes, “When you sit, just sit.  When you walk, just walk.  Do not wobble!”  In other words, when you spar, just spar.  When you are practicing kicks, just practice kicks.  When you are sitting in a horse stance for 5 minutes at a time, just sit in the horse stance!  Likewise, when you are driving in your car, just drive in your car.  When you are ordering from a menu at a restaurant, just order from the menu—don’t think about the food until it arrives.  And when you do eat, just eat!
     And, finally, when your mind wanders from what you are doing, bring it back to what you are doing.  If you are in the middle of a form, and your mind wanders, don’t berate yourself, but do bring your mind back to the form.  Do this in all your life, and you will understand just how important mindfulness is.
Key #3: Cultivate a Compassionate and Generous Heart
     You can be mindful all you want, and you can stop attaching to things that are of a delusive nature, but will either of these things truly matter if you don’t have a kind, compassionate, and generous heart?  No, I don’t think they will.  In fact, they won’t matter at all.
     By the same token, is it of any value to be very skilled at martial arts, but to not be compassionate and giving?  Do not waver on this, for the answer is surely “no!”
     If you have been practicing martial arts for any appreciable length of time, then I am sure you understand the value of a kind, caring teacher.  How many of us would have never continued in our training—especially for those of us that started at a very young age—if we didn’t have a kind, yet firm, instructor guiding our hand?
     It could be that many of you don’t even understand the true meaning of compassion and generosity—this is especially true for those of you who have never really practiced it.  Here’s a definition of compassion from a Bible that I own: “The deep feeling of sharing the suffering of others, and giving aid, support, or showing mercy.”  Notice that (in this definition) compassion is not just a feeling you have, but it’s also an action you take.  As martial artists, we should always take action!  In fact, as martial artists, we should—all of us—feel obligated to show the world just how compassionate we are.
     As for generosity, I think this quote from Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha) sums it up best: “If you knew, as I do, the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing some of it.”  Obviously, the Buddha thought that being generous was one of the most important things a human being could do.  We should all think as this!
Key #4: Lose Your Ego
     By losing your ego, I mean losing your sense of self.  When most people think of, and use the word ego, they are usually thinking of an overblown ego.  Perhaps they are reminded of a co-worker, friend, or relative they know who is always thinking only of him or her self.  But I’m not talking about that here.  I’m talking about anytime that you cling to a sense of “me,” or anytime that you cling to something—or someone—as being “mine.”
     One of the worst attributes we as human beings have is selfishness.  It’s an even worse attribute if we’re martial artists.  As martial artists, not only should we be less selfish, we should be “selfless.”
     How can you expect to truly apply any of our first three keys if you don’t learn to lose your sense of self?  The fact of the matter is that, for most people, it would be a very hard task to do.  Only by no longer clinging to a sense of “me” or “mine” are you able to no longer slip into your old, bad habits.
     For those of you who don’t like this idea of “losing your self,” it is probably because you think it will somehow make you less happy than before.  In fact, this is the general perception, but it is wrong.  Most people find that when they let go of their ego, not only are they able to apply the first three keys with success, but they also become happier, healthier individuals, not to mention better martial artists.
     Let me offer you this quote from the Japanese kendo master Yamada Jirokichi, which sums up best this concept as it applies to martial arts: “The Way of the sword and the Way of Zen are identical, for they have the same purpose; that of killing the ego.”
Closing Thoughts

     In closing, I would like to quote one more person: the great karate master Gichin Funakoshi.  Even though Funakoshi was directing this toward his karate students, it applies to all martial arts.  It goes like this: “No matter how you may excel in the art of karate, nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”  I don’t think anything else could have summed up the spirit of this article any better.


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