Principles and Guidelines

martial arts masters and spirituality

Why do so many of the ancient and even some contemporary martial arts masters end up focusing on the spiritual nature of mankind?

The simplest explanation happens to intuitively make sense: Martial arts teaches people to face death.

Confrontation with death was the foundational premise that all martial arts were built upon. Even in some of today’s more toned-down dojos there remain reminders of death. We see it in empty-hand choke holds and in techniques designed to cause severe injury or death. We see it in swords hanging on the dojo wall, or in conventional weapons training such as stick-fighting or self defense against knives and guns.

The essence of the martial arts takes us across the chasm that divides life and death.

While not all dojos are equal, their heritage is based on the essence of the martial arts — which was developed to take us across the chasm that divides life and death. In this sense, martial arts is clearly an adult-oriented pursuit. Yet even children training in today’s karate studios can benefit from this heritage. While kids training to be better disciplined will likely not approach this precise life/death boundary, in another way they may very well approach it when they are faced with situations on the mat that challenge them to overcome, with fear and trembling, what seems to be an impossible request from their instructor.

Martial arts is undoubtedly the deepest of exercises in self realization.

To teach people how to face death is to take on the responsibility of teaching them to face the deepest darkness within themselves. It is undoubtedly the deepest of all exercises in human self-realization. The journey to discover the ability to stay calm in the face of death is one which eventually transports the sojourner into the calm stillness of the universe itself.

Learning to face death

Just as a dojo teaches its students footwork or teaches the mechanics of technical movements, the student also learns how to navigate and coordinate themselves within the context of their inner fears and insecurities. This is one of martial art’s greatest powers: that it allows the spiritual journey to be practiced in physical movement. So, just as a foot stutters and missteps, the student can physically correlate that their inner missteps are similarly uncoordinated. As above, so below.

To teach deeper realizations requires a curriculum that is capable of teaching deeper realizations.

To help explain and teach an understanding of these things, the experience of highly and unusually qualified senior martial arts instructors are required. Additionally, to teach deeper realizations requires a curriculum that is capable of teaching deeper realizations — something that is often unavailable in the standard, store-front martial arts school.

Having said that, to then bring about the transformations that occur when learning to confront death is itself a slow process. Some teachers convey this by exposing their students to thousands of repetitions. The idea of repeated practice is an old one, and embraces the notion that somewhere in the midst of it all, the student will begin to encounter ‘aha’ moments of self realization.

Other teachers find that this ‘repetition method’ of teaching has limitations. The limitations often occur either because the teacher has insufficient realization themselves, or because they may be incapable of explaining something that they are fully capable of actually doing.

Introducing principles

In some systems of teaching, these ‘realization limitations’ are overcome by introducing principles. But as we shall see, the martial arts are not consistent in how they use the word ‘principles’:

Ways martial arts use the term ‘principles’:

  1. Standards of behavior
  2. Focus points for meditation
  3. Guidelines in performing martial arts
  4. Fundamental or universal truths

For some martial arts, their principles can be more aptly described as guidelines for living or for setting standards of behavior. Karate’s founder Gichin Funakoshi wrote The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate: The Spiritual Legacy of the Master. In one example, Funakoshi states:

Principle 16: When you step beyond your own gate, you face a million enemies. — Funakoshi

Others use the term to convey meditative focus points. We can find this, for example, in the uncompromising opening statements from The Code of the Samurai, which enjoins its readers to focus on death daily:

“One who is a samurai must before all things keep constantly in mind, by day and by night, from the morning when he takes up his chopsticks to eat his New Year’s breakfast to Old Year’s night when he pays his yearly bills, the fact that he has to die.”

It goes on to state that if the samurai engages in this practice, he and his family and community will, among other things, be healthier — in part because a certain calmness will begin to pervade the samurai’s daily life and his approach to problems. I’ve personally embraced this particular edict, having practiced it daily for over 20 years.

In Aikido, Koichi Tohei, founder of the Ki Society, developed a series of guidelines or principles including:

4 Basic Principles for the Unification of Mind and Body

1. Keep One Point

2. Relax Completely

3. Keep weight underside

4. Extend Ki

Establishing a deeper sense of principles

What we have seen so far is that the term ‘principles’ can mean many things. But as we shall see moving forward, there exists a deeper, more transcendent use of the term: that of universal or fundamental principles.

prin·ci·ple/ˈprinsəpəl/noun/plural noun: principles

  1. a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.

The dictionary instructs us that a principle is a fundamental truth. Principles are foundational, so it is within that context that we can begin to siphon out the potential of universal principles. We can discover that they empower us in the direction of transcending the chasm between life and death.

If we want to expose the most potent tools and ammunition of the ancient masters, we need to embark on a study of universal principles. Wherein lies these mysterious powers?

Unlike some of the earlier examples, which have limited reach and applicability, a principle that’s universal means it can be utilized in virtually any situation. Which means that we have at our potential disposal a tool or set of tools that are able to address the most fundamental human issues.

The meanings of fundamental principles and truths are meaningless when read from a list.

I am forced to acknowledge a painful conclusion. The very concept of universal or fundamental principles are problematic. Because while they can easily be depicted in a list for fast reference, their meanings are meaningless when read from a list. Since universal principles are often very familiar words, it’s easy to casually dismiss them.

When viewed in a list, it’s a breeze to simply nod and say, “Oh sure, I completely get that.” That’s a mistake. Universal principles require study, practice, contemplation and application.

Some universal principles are familiar to us. Truth is one of them. Truth is something that exists in all things, hence its universality.

Principles such as Truth are incredibly potent. They can not only exhibit their power in everyday life circumstances, but with extended study we can discover them revealing both obscure and hidden potentials.

Truth surfaces again and again in the world of the martial artist as he or she confronts the deeper truths within him/herself. As the martial artist’s studies deepen, Truth itself begins to slowly peel away the deeper truths of our limited, mind-controlled perceptions of reality.

And it is through the pursuit of these deeper principles that the martial arts finally yields, allowing our first hint of the way to navigate into the hidden. It is through the vulnerability of yielding that realizations begin to emerge, allowing deeper glimpses into the spiritual nature of humankind.

“It is the very mind itself that leads the mind astray; Of the mind, do not be ‘mindless.”

The effort to not stop the mind in just one place — this is discipline. Not stopping the mind is object and essence. Put nowhere, it will be everywhere.”

― Takuan Soho, The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman



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Mark Walter

Construction worker and philosopher: “When I forget my ways, I am in The Way”