Everybody was Kung Fu fighting: from dojo to arena
Prima facie, martial arts seem to bear more references to film than to philosophical
themes. And yet by calling into question issues such as life and death, identity, people’s relationships, the ability to control one’s emotions or instincts, martial arts infuse the thoughts and reflections of their enthusiasts with a spiritual dimension. Initially linked to warfare, martial arts eventually came to transcend its utilitarian origins in the course of its development,. The principles of warfare as the origin of martial arts
Military victories were won thanks to the use of different techniques of combat. The oldest
civilizations were pioneers in the field. The warlike nature of this vocation is reflected in the etymology of the term "martial arts", Mars being the Roman god of war. The martial arts of South India, known as Kalaripayattu (a compound of “field”, perhaps “battle field” and “study” or ‘”learn”), were taught to every soldier in preparation for the battlefield. However, Kalaripayattu was not limited to warfare techniques. It incorporated a significant body of medical and religious knowledge, which is perhaps reflected in the fact that gyms were constructed around an altar dedicated to a warrior deity1. This connection between martial arts and the techniques of warfare is also palpable in the writings of Sun Tzu, particularly in The Art of War (translated literally as "Sun Tzu’s Military Principles"), which brings together Taoist principles essential to warriors2. Even if such texts interested themselves principally in war, they have had a great influence on the operating principles of martial arts. Sun Tzu affirms that the objective of war is to take over and conserve the opponent’s possessions, in other words, to make the enemy conform to one’s own intentions rather than destroying him outright3. This tactic is to be understood in the context of 1
Master E. Edwards, ”Indian Martial Arts”, 2004. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Pax Librorum, Publishing House, 2009. 3 Ibid, III, 1 : “In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact ; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to capture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.” 2
medieval China, which was a closed-‐off world constantly battling off strong enemies. Sun Tzu also wrote that the warrior should not overpower his opponent but use the strengths of the latter to its own advantage: "this is called, using the conquered foe to augment one's own Strength"4. Chinese ”boxing” (“wushu” in Mandarin Chinese, popularly known to the West as “kung fu”), highly practiced at the time of the arrival of Europeans in the nineteenth-‐century, incorporates many of Sun Tzu’s principles. It attended the development of the self-‐defence capabilities of peasant communities, evident in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900-‐1901. Its style, based in large part on animal mimicry, draws heavily from Taoism. Chinese martial arts even make direct reference to Taoism in a style known as the "Eight Immortals", which uses fighting techniques associated with the characteristics of each immortal in the Taoist canon. Chinese marital arts apply the precepts of Sun Tzu in combat, stating for instance that all things are immersed in an "unstoppable flow" and it being ineffective to oppose this flow, the martial artist must necessarily move in its direction. In practice, this principle enables the warrior to accomplish perfectly fluid movements without being disturbed by his environment5.
The seniority of the link between samurais and the practice of martial arts emphasizes the
essentially warring role played by Japanese martial arts warriors. This does not preclude the incorporation of Zen, which was fully integrated into the art of combat, the philosophy’s practicality and simplicity being perfectly compatible with the art of war. On the one hand, Zen penetrated the world of the samurai by bushidô (literally “the way of the warrior”), a code of honour to which all members of the military class (buke) conformed. Paradoxically, Buddhism brought about the formation of a spirit of chivalry and nationalism. Further, the practice of zazen (literally “seated meditation”) proved very useful for combat: through meditation, detached from all futile passion, the warrior does not fear death, and so is invincible6. In this way, Zen enables a better understanding of confrontation, through perfection and mastery of one’s mind so as to find inner peace and courage. Furthermore, if Zen is associated with emptiness, it is also associated with the "path of the warrior": the warrior tends to find both inner peace and martial perfection simultaneously. The Japanese martial arts experience, however, underwent a transformation with the advent of the Meiji era (1868-‐1912). From its utility roots, the practice of martial arts developed into an essentially spiritual pursuit, from simple jutsu (military techniques) to dô (paths), martial discipline took on a mental aim, all this under the influence of Zen. 4
Ibid, II, 18. Daisetz Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, Pantheon Books, New-‐York, 1959. 6 Notably Takuan (1573-‐1645), Hakuin (1685-‐1768) and Musashi (1584-‐1645). 5
The influence of Zen and other spiritual movements on the development of martial arts
Zen has been a major influence on the development of martial arts, as will be further
illustrated below, but it is not the only influence. Taoism has also been a major inspiration. The Dao De Jing (or Tao Te Ching, "Book of the Way and its Virtue") is a short collection of obscure and poetic aphorisms awarded to the father and deified founder of Taoism: Laozi (or Lao Tzu). It includes the libertarian ethic, a "quietist" mystique, which is also present in Chán Buddhism (ancestor of the Japanese Zen) and a sense of balance between yin and yang. Taoism’s influence is visible in many aspects of martial arts. It is a kind of spiritual alchemy, which aims at the transformation of the practitioner through spiritual and physical exercise, attended by the alignment of cosmic forces. The quest for immortality, breath control (Qi gong) and energy mastery are all essential to Chinese martial arts, although these things find less importance in their Japanese counterpart. The links with Confucianism are also equally tangible. We can find common values such as integrity and uprightness (also found in Taoism, with the notion of “de" or “te”), or the respect due to elders. In addition, the methods of teaching Confucianism are similar to those used to impart martial arts knowledge to samurais: the importance of ritual, the absence of explicit instructions or observations. Ultimately then, from their origins, martial arts have taken inspiration from a sort of mysticism. The masters had access to relatively obscure formulas by which they encoded techniques, in order to not be understood by the uninitiated. The scrolls thus employ metaphors such as "the reflection of the moon on the lake" (to express the distance between two fighters) or "two peaks" (in reference to the elbows).
Beyond its "mystical" or “spiritual” aspect, martial arts must be understood from a
philosophical perspective. For a Japanese master of aikido7, the meaning of martial arts is to be found in the sort of dual relation that they inspire. The art of fighting creates an alternative between the self and the other, which comes down to this: kill or be killed. By exceeding this initial extremely martial conception, the master of aikido invites us to see this self-‐others duality as a relationship between subject and object, and an alternative method of affirmation-‐negation. We can "define martial arts, stripped down to its essential meaning, as a way to manage one’s subjectivity in relation to others"8. On the other hand, the art of fighting invites us to see Zen, 7 8
Luc Boussard, translation by Chiba Sensei. Ibid.
through the practice of zazen, as an exercise in discovery and mastery of one’s subjectivity, as a subject. In fine, Zen is a prerequisite for the study and the exercise of one’s subjectivity when faced with the other, which is enabled by martial arts.
Zen lies at the origin of the transformation of Japanese martial arts. By the second half of
the nineteenth-‐century, martial arts schools began to form, inspired by the current of budo bushi. It includes kendo, issued from kenjutsu9; kyudo10, issued from kyujutsu; Jigoro Kano’s judo11 and Morihei Ushiba’s aikido, both of which are derived from jujutsu12 and Gichin Funakoshi’s karate do13. The budo14 consists of all Japanese martial arts. More than serving as a simple grouping of martial arts, budo binds them to the philosophical and ethical questions. The term do meaning "way", the budo makes us reflect on what constitutes this path and how best to follow it. It is one way of finding and acquiring the understanding needed to control oneself. This is the path of Buddha, the Butsudo, which allows the ego to reach enlightenment15. The connection between Zen and budo is particularly obvious in the importance they attach both to meditation, zazen, which allows to achieve a state of spiritual awakening.
The rediscovery of the meaning of dô in Japan in the early twentieth century is linked to
the Chinese tradition of Qi (“Ki” in Japanese). Ki is the energy, interior and exterior, which a man can learn to control. It is concentrated at a single point, just below the navel (the Hara). Aikido, under the influence of Ueshiba, was deeply marked by the concept of Ki. Ueshiba saw the sport as both a defence and as a mystical practice. It was for him a divine path (dô), giving the man who practices the opportunity to be in harmony with nature in its entirety. In the progressive realization of the technique, Aikido draws parallels between Zen and martial arts16. Initially, the subject denies the subject, that is to say that the tori (the practitioner who performs the technique of aikido, who throws his opponent) denies the uke (the attacker, who is thrown). During practice, the roles are reversed with katas (forms, or codified movements). Then, object and subject deny each other: the opponents floor each other; "not to kill if you will be killed" and "be prepared to kill if one is about to be killed." Finally, subject and object accept each other: this is the "mutual 9
Fencing. Path of the rule. 11 Path of the moving Zen. 12 Former suppleness techniques practiced by samurais. 13 Path of bare-‐handed combat. 14 Path of the warrior. 15 Taisen Deshimaru, Zen & Arts martiaux, Paris, 1983. 16 Luc Boussard, op. cit. 10
crossing"; the result is coexistence and mutual recognition. It is no longer about killing the other but about killing the ego in itself, to transcend one’s ego17.
If aikido understands Ki in a manner that is highly spiritualized, Judo, founded by Jigoro
Kano, takes into account the ancient practices of warriors of the do, which made use of Ki in a rational manner, making use of the opponent’s Ki. Efficiency is paramount and occurs through an absolute mastery of oneself, of the body as well as of the mind. Judo has a moral code, represented three values: Shin (moral valour, mind, and character), Ghi (technical merit) and Tai (bodily strength)18. These values can exist for each practitioner, in proportions which vary according to age, sex and health. Judo is based less on a spiritual quest sometimes mystical, relatively opaque to the uninitiated, than it is on a set of moral and ethical precepts. Bushido19 includes many judo values expressed in the form of aphorisms. These aphorisms make literal reference to a philosophical approach, based as they are on a quest for sofya, or wisdom. Righteousness is thus defined by a bushi as "the power to make, without flinching, a decision dictated by reason. Die when it is good to die, hit when it is good to hit"20. Similarly, the codification of gestures and the ritual of politeness frame the life of every soldier and practitioner. It aims at the mastery of passions and instincts. The strong ritualization of judo can thus be understood as a process of "civilising" social relationships, adorning them with certain nobility. In the same vein, dojos are considered as schools of life, where the relationship between master and disciple offers a physical, technical and psychological training. It is therefore not surprising that loyalty is considered a major value in judo, especially the link between master and student, without obsequiousness, respect and loyalty are unwavering. This constant loyalty comes from the samurais, for whom attachment to Lord and to the Emperor Yato, the soul of the country, took precedence over everything else, including filial piety.
Zen has also inspired karate, though this happened later. Karate was born when the
practice of martial arts from China reached the peninsula of Okinawa and inspired new practices, always tinged by the martial arts practiced by the samurais. Conceptualized by Gichin Funakoshi, karate takes its inspiration from traditional Japanese culture as much as it does from Chinese 17
Christian Courtonne, “Entretien avec Philippe Coupey, moine zen et dirigeant de la mission de Maître Deshimaru”, October 1999. 18 Jigoro Kano, Kôdôkan Judo, Kodansha International, 1994. 19 Naze Nitobé, Le Bushido -‐ L'âme du Japon, Payot, Paris, 1927. 20 André Cognard “Ma rencontre avec Kobayashi Sensei”, in André Cognard, Le petit manuel d’aikido, Centon Editions, 2007.
culture and Japanese budo thought. The evolution of karate towards the field of dô occupies is reflected in the evolution of its name. Originally called karate-‐jutsu (jutsu the term designating a combat technique, the practical value), it then became karate-‐dô. The word kara, meaning "empty", assumes a particular importance21. It illustrates the refusal to use weapons other than hands or feet and underlines that the aim of karate is not to perfect a technique but to purify one’s heart and mind of all desire and vainglory. The idea of vacuum must be understood as seeking a state of mind common to Zen and budô, allowing the action perfectly free from outside influence, in harmony with itself and its environment. The use of different characters to write the word "karate" reveals the emancipation of Chinese influence. Until the nineteenth-‐century, the ideogram "kara" was the same as "to", both characters designating China. It was at the beginning of the early twentieth-‐century that a new character was used for the word "kara" which read "ku", meaning "empty." This change marks a break with the Chinese influence while linking art to Buddhist philosophy ("empty" referring to the emptiness of mind)22. The addition of the word "dô" allows for integration of the idea that, like all other Japanese arts (ikebana, calligraphy), karate is a form spiritual soul-‐searching. From this perspective, the practitioner must follow a number of precepts that constitute the moral code of each discipline. Improvement in everything goes hand in hand with self-‐fulfilling, in a harmony of a being with its environment23. The founder of karate wanted to assimilate this martial art to Budô, reconciling practical combat and spiritual fulfilment. Self-‐control and unity (wholeness)
Martial arts reconcile the quest for spiritual enlightenment with that of self-‐control, as
called for by one of the twenty principles of Funakoshi: "Let your spirit free, do not let it be fixed"24. The mind must remain agile and free, and not to be encumbered in order to be as responsive as possible. Mastery of the martial art requires monitoring of a stern morality. If all martial arts obey a code of honour, Japanese bushidô is one of the most codified. Its classical version consists of nine virtues25, that we can find in the moral code of judo. Research of self-‐ 21
Vincent Leduc, Vers l’intersection du karaté-‐do et du bouddhisme zen, Louvain Catholic University, 1999. R. Habersetzer, Combat à main nue, Histoire et traditions en Extrême-‐Orient, Arts martiaux phora, Paris, 1998. 23 K. Tokitsu, La voie du karaté. Pour une théorie des arts martiaux japonais, Paris, Seuil, 1979. 24 Gichin Funakoshi, The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate: The Spiritual Legacy of the Master, Kodansha, 2003. 25 Honour: meiyo; faithfulness: chujitsu; sincerity: seijitsu; courage: yuukan; benevolence: shinsetsu; humility: ken; honesty: tadashi; respect: sonchoo; self-‐control: seigyo. Honour is the most important virtue, from which the eight virtues result. It goes with the quest for an ideal. Faithfulness is understood as honouring one’s commitments. Sincerity is tantamount to authenticity and courage is a synonymous for will. Benevolence encourages mutual aid, while humility prevents from self-‐conceit. Honesty means undertaking its commitments and respecting the others. 22
control, one of the cardinal virtues of bushidô, is equally prevalent in Thai boxing. It is not, as can be seen in combat sports, about winning the competition by putting one’s opponent out of action by all means, but rather about mastering the "art" (sinla'pa ') of boxing, by become master of one’s emotions and pain26. Concentration and attention are the way to cut out sensations. Thai boxing does not follow so much a spiritual process, even if performance is understood as "the will in action". Achieving this level of excellence enables one to apprehend, thanks to the opponent, one’s own self-‐control. The idea of self-‐control is rooted in Japanese Zen, which is associated with "emptiness" but also "the path of the warrior." The fighter should not allow himself to be dominated by a hostile feeling or judgment but be "empty", free and available to respond to any external event. Experiencing Zen for a fighter means that he can be absolutely focused, by being completely detached from what is happening around him. This control of all by emptiness enables one to achieve unity by making complements of completely opposites. Such an approach is at the heart of the teaching of Bodhidharma, founder of Chinese martial arts, which designated martial arts as essential to the spiritual quest in that they allow a harmonious development of body and mind, whose Unity is essential. In his view "doctrine is preached to mind, but mind and body are originally one and we can not separate them"27. Beyond spirituality: the listing of martial arts in society
It follows that martial arts, with the spiritual and philosophical reflection involved in their
practice, apply almost naturally to the daily activities of their practitioners. Thai boxing has enjoyed a sort of renaissance by a movement of "sportivisation"28 and nationalization in the twentieth-‐century, aiming at the promotion of recreational practice as much as at claiming a national identity29. Two centuries ago on the American continent, the development of capoeira experienced a similar development, where this "martial dance" became a tool of emancipation of black slaves against white domination. In this regard, capoeira invents a dance language that emphasizes a return to origins and the animal side of man and game. It enjoins "resistance, to
Respect encourages and results from honesty, but means also due respect to sacred. Self-‐control is one of the main goals of martial arts and determines their efficiency. 26 Stéphane Rennesson ”La boxe thaïlandaise : assurer le spectacle et ne pas perdre la face”, Ethnologie française 4/2006 (Vol. 36). 27 Vincent Leduc, op. cit. 28 Jean-‐François Loudcher, ”Le processus de sportivisation de la boxe anglaise : le cas de l’étude temporelle des combats à poings nus (1743-‐1867) ”, Movement & sport sciences, 2008/3 n°65. 29 Stéphane Rennesson in Jean Marc de Grave et Benoit Gaudin, ”Les Arts martiaux Extrême-‐Orientaux”, colloquial in Versailles St Quentin en Yvelines University, 28 March 2008.
enter into acting, playing and thwarting the functionality of the white world where the Black has nothing to win, refusing to debase the power of movement in the value of the act"30. A social tool, martial arts sometimes form a central element of learning citizenship and of communal life. Training constitutes an act of socialization in its own right, the camp being an educational intermediary as the family home and school. In the case of Thai boxing, it is considered that being "a good boxer, is being a good citizen, that is to say a good Buddhist"31.
The relevance of the different cultures’ influence behind each brand of martial art makes it
imperative to remain wary of taking too westernized an approach to them. There are several pitfalls that must be avoided: the ahistorical vision of martial arts mythicized by Bruce Lee movies and images which aggravate this, encouraging the incorrect notion of martial arts as homogeneous. They belong to different geographical areas, have undergone various cultural influences and have distinct histories and ages. Furthermore, if the speech emphasizing the need to go through the Zen to truly understand and practice martial arts is generally accepted, it ought to note that there exists a disagreement between Japanese historians. While all recognize the Zen some influence in the development of martial arts, some consider it is today overrated.
At this point it is important to remind the reader of the recent influence of the Western
gaze on the martial arts. Chinese boxing and was classified into two categories (internal and external32) in the late nineteenth-‐century. This distinction was drawn essentially by Westerners, who could thus "juxtapose a Western model of the human body (morphology, biomechanics, medical) to an energy model and physiological functioning of the body, according to traditional Chinese culture"33. Masters also encouraged this Westernization, with a view to exporting the martial arts. Kawaishi Mikinosuke adjusted the grading system for colored belts in the late nineteenth-‐century for the development of judo. It was taken over by the vast majority of martial arts disciplines, even non-‐Japanese ones, using the reward as a motivating factor in the context of teaching methods geared to western practitioners34. The exacerbation of the division between internal and external martial arts has encouraged the 30
Camille Dumoulié, ”La capoeira, une philosophie du corps”, 2006. Stéphane Rennesson ”La boxe thaïlandaise : assurer le spectacle et ne pas perdre la face”, Ethnologie française 4/2006 (Vol. 36). 31
Nei Jia Quan 内家拳 and Wai Jia Quan 外家拳.
David Florentin, ”Histoire des arts martiaux chinois”, 2007. Domy Stefanini, Richesse des arts martiaux, curiosité occidentale et mystère asiatique, 2009.
development of categorized disciplines, ranging from recreation to Ultimate Fighting. Qi Gong (internal) since 1980 has enjoyed booming popularity in France, its followers finding in this "traditional energetic art" an activity that is both beneficial to their well-‐being and culturally rich35. In contrast, some traditional martial arts have their original violent features accentuated (e.g. the full contact version of karate where the shots are recorded) or revised with in the view of self-‐ defence (including the Indonesian Pencak Silat, taught for use of the tonfa by the police, or the Russian systema which incorporates many features of aikido). Self-‐defence techniques aim primarily at freeing the natural reflexes, stripping the fighting down to a purely physical violence ignoring the element of spiritual clash. If martial arts teach a technique, which is used in combat only as a second step, this process is reversed and the case of close combat, where the first battles take place without prior technical preparation. Resistance to fears and self-‐control transpire less from meditation and the application of techniques than they do from the actual experience of combat36.
Violence and instinct seem to prevail without much reference to Sun Tzu, who advised to
adopt the crude state of acting without prior judgement, the strategist should instead open his perceptive potential and learn only by experience, that is to say from factual senses and situations. Interest in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in particular seems to reveal a quasi-‐utility approach to combat sports: there is the victory obtained by knockout or submission, and assaults are the most effective early in the exchange37. The success of this type of sports even among practitioners of traditional martial arts, the emphasis of natural reflexes, of instinct, the refusal of any codification may suggest that we are seeing an eclipse of the philosophical or spiritual element in martial arts. Let us not forget as long as boxing, a fighting sport par excellence, originated in Greece where it was introduced by Eryx, the champion of Olympus38: Western culture is at the origin of the codification of combat sports, that which today seems to praise the absence of rule. From Bodhidharma to Richard Douieb, fighting and its socio-‐philosophical dimension remain, ultimately, an affair of otherness. In a permanent, dynamic flux, the meeting of opposites leads either to paradox or union. 35
Marceau Chenault, ”La pratique du qi gong en France”, in Jean Marc de Grave et Benoit Gaudin ”Les Arts martiaux Extrême-‐Orientaux”, op. cit. 36 Domy Stefanini, op. cit. 37 ”The variables with the largest marginal effects in the sub-‐sample of fights that go to a decision were damage and knockdowns, which is not surprising given their limited frequency in a fight.” Trevor Collier, Andrew L. Johnson, John Ruggiero, "Aggression In Mixed Martial Arts, An Analysis of the Likelihood of Winning a Decision", Springer Publishing. 2011. 38 Devost, Manual Of Savate And English Boxing, Method Leboucher, 1885.
Club du Millénaire: Pauline Deschryver, Louis-‐Marie Bureau, Pierre Jérémie Editorial board: Louis-‐Marie Bureau, Sarah Laffon Translation: Rosalind Tan
Published on Feb 27, 2013
Prima facie, martial arts seem to bear more references to film than to philosophical themes. And yet by calling into question issues such as...