Martial Arts, the Way of Virtue

Martial Arts:  Te is the Way

Annellen & Alex Simpkins Ph.D.’s

 “Dig within. There lies the wellsprings of good: Ever  dig and it will ever flow.” (Marcus Aurelius,  Meditations)

  Martial arts and ethical philosophy are linked, though exactly how is sometimes obscured behind the tapestry of time’s passing. Dynamic techniques can be derived from these concepts when fully comprehended. The power of te (virtue) points the Way!

Early Threads
 During the Silla period in Korean history (688-935 AD), the three kingdoms on the Korean peninsula that had been at war with each other, united under the Silla Dynasty government. Some attribute the victory of Silla to an indomitable  martial arts force known as the Hwa Rang Do. Made up of youth from the noble classes, the Hwa-Rang Do was a group dedicated to a moral code that trained their minds and spirits along with their bodies. Their code of conduct, probably drawn from Confucianism and Buddhism, included loyalty to the king, faithfulness to comrades, devotion to parents, bravery in battle, and a prohibition against senseless killing. The Hwa Rang Do lived and trained according to this code, becoming a strong moral and military force for Silla.  They were a well-known source of national inspiration.
  Another group of early martial arts warriors were the Samurai of Japan. These warriors, also known as  Bushi, lived and died by what became known as the feudal code of Bushido, the military-knight Way. Bushido took centuries to develop, and like the European knight’s code of chivalry that was based on Christianity, the Bushido code derived from the ethical and spiritual values of Japan’s religions, Zen, Shintoism, and Confucianism. Zen offered the Samurai a method of meditation that allowed them to reach beyond words to a higher consciousness. The highest attainment for a master of Bushido was to be a master of Zen, according to Suzuki. Shintoism, the native religion of Japan, included reverence to ancestors and the spiritual quality of nature. Early Korea had a similar kind of indigenous nature worship of its own, including a variation of shamanism. Confucianism added a practical guide since knowledge was considered identical with its practical application: “To know and to act are one and the same.” (Nitobe, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, 1902) Ethical codes of conduct followed naturally from Confucian doctrine in terms of relationships between the Samurai and his king, his father, his wife, and his friends.  Confucianism was also one of the basic influences in Korea, leading to Korean counterparts in formalities and codes of conduct in relationships.
 Chivalry in feudal Asia and Europe sought to guide conduct in such a way as to inspire and enhance the development of humanity. The knights of feudal times found higher values useful in their lives, helping them to be more effective.  Through the power of inner truth, the threat to spirituality from unspiritual, destructive forces might be overcome. Chivalry was an early attempt to link through and action, spirit and deed. Committed in action, the noble joined with the everyday. Dualities were resolved.  The outer battle was a function of the inner.
 The duty to uphold the Lord and all that he symbolized became the honorable quest of the knights of Asia, as well as the knights of Europe. The effect was to organize efforts around a commitment, a promise, a loyalty. When this was broken or corrupted, their efforts diminished and lost focused momentum.  The purposeful Way of the warrior was based in a kind of integrity.  Integrity led to inner unity, and thus to inner strength.  Inner strength was expressed in outer strength, and manifested in action.

Modern Tapestries
 These original threads from philosophy and chivalry have become interwoven into the fabric of martial arts today, as a Way. Modern Tae Kwon Do is more than a set of techniques and skills. It is an art, a Way that “Does not limit itself to proficiency in technique as an end in itself but goes further to integrate the art as a way of being in the world.” (Richard Chun, Tae Kwon Do)

The Sense of Justice
 Martial artists have evolved a sense of justice, for even though they develop power from training, they learn to use it wisely. Training imbues practitioners with the spirit of steadfastness, in the relentless, day in and day out of steady disciplined practice. This is much like Zen meditation where the monks consider that true enlightenment comes through practice--that is doing meditation. It is in the act itself that ethical value comes to life. Confucius believed that virtue must always be expressed in action, by what people do in everyday life. Mencius said, “Benevolence is the mind and justice or righteousness the path.” He beseeched people to follow this path, recognizing its importance. “How lamentable is it to neglect the path and not pursue it, to lose the mind and not know to seek it again!” (Nitobe, 1902)
 Traditional martial arts of today incorporate this sense of justice in the ethical codes that students adopt: to use their martial art for defense only, never as the initiator of an attack. Forms begin with a block, not an attack, as a concrete manifestation of this. Traditional training teaches through action.
 Spiritually evolved martial artists do everything they can to avoid petty fighting. By developing a strong character, they are not easily drawn into fights. Their value is to prevent harm to themselves and others, thereby remaining part of the harmony.  This strong sense of justice is a guiding principle for the martial artist in action. Tae Kwon Do Grandmaster Son Duk Sung speaks for all martial artists who follow the higher path when he said:

 As the skill develops, the inner sense of responsibility  develops along with it, making the person skilled in Tae  Kwon Do a better member of the community than he was  before. Having the power to kill, he is less likely to  use any power or force at all than he was before. (Sung  and Clark, Korean Karate: The Art of Tae Kwon Do)

Sincerity and Honor
 According to Confucianism, sincerity is one of the highest virtues, for when life is met sincerely, all becomes possible.
 The way to be sincere in thought and action is through doing things wholeheartedly, unified, not half way. It also leads to great power and focus in technique. Sincerity leads to wholehearted devotion and involvement. As Blyth said in his book Zen and Zen Classics:

 True meditation is to devote oneself to a thing and  understand it, that is, not thinking first and  practicing afterwards, but thinking and practice as one  activity.

 Honor is also important. People are remembered for their deeds,  whether and how they truly carried them out--and this memory lives on, whether it be within the martial arts school, a single family, or an entire nation,.  This is reflected in the social context of the dojang, through the virtuous performance of assigned tasks, as well as in the wider context of life. Again, technique is powerfully affected.

 Both Confucianism and Buddhism teach that the humble person is the truly wise one. Confucius said in the Analects, “The firm, the enduring, the simple, and the modest are near to virtue.”
 A person who acquires great strength and capacities from martial arts training might be expected to become arrogant. The virtue of humility, central to martial arts training, keeps the personality in balance.  It requires humility to receive and accept correction.  Humility is sometimes defined as the absence of pride, but within every yin there must be yang.  Humility and pride are two opposite poles of the same thing.  Accomplished martial artists have confidence in their many skills; they can apply these skills to life as well. Knowing this, they feel it unnecessary to continually prove these skills.  The truly great martial artist will appear humble.
 With humility comes respect.  One example of how the early traditions live on in modern times may be seen in the relationship between teacher and student in the martial arts.  Students are to be respectful to superiors, and each other, shown by bowing before and after each activity. The student should honor the teacher, who in turn, observes the student’s actions carefully to guide correctly.  This becomes a trust between them, that if maintained, leads to a raising up of all involved, to become wiser and better than they were before the interaction.
 With wisdom comes the recognition that there is always more to learn. As Confucius said, “Shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;--this is knowledge” (Analects). Learning in martial arts is a step-wise process, where each rank is reached with a new belt awarded as the student progresses. There is an understanding among accomplished practitioners that the earning of a black belt is not the end, but only the beginning.
 This derives from the Eastern philosophical principle of emptiness that forms the basis for Zen Buddhism and martial arts. The usefulness of a vessel is in its emptiness, according to Taoism. Emptiness is the fertile void of possibility. Only where there is emptiness can true understanding take root and grow. If the practitioner is filled with pride, where is there space for emptiness? We come full circle.

 The way to the source of virtue lies within each person, for although we all may claim to love virtue, what is truly virtuous always comes from our human actions, nowhere else. Train hard, then we will find the Way to Te.


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