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Monday, September 2, 2013

Choosing a Martial Arts School, 3.6: Personal Development--Matters of the Spirit

The martial arts have a reputation (one enhanced by popular media) for being closely linked to spiritual pursuits. The image of the wise kung fu master, who dispenses spiritual advice alongside his ass-kicking, is one of the most enduring images in the modern mind. There are those who are drawn to the martial arts not out of a desire to learn to fight, or to achieve competitive success, but to attain the kind of enlightenment attributed to their media or folklore heroes. If that sounds like you, this post is for you.

This is very closely tied to the last post in this series, and much of the same advice applies. The last piece of advice is the most important: caveat emptor. If there was ever a place where frauds, charlatans, and hucksters resided in the martial arts, it was behind the veil of spiritual enlightenment. Tread carefully.

My Biases

I will be up front and say that I am very, very skeptical of the use of martial arts in spiritual development. More accurately, I'm very skeptical of those martial arts instructors who purport to teach spiritual enlightenment. I've met a lot of people who talk about spiritual development, and almost none who strike me as actually having any.

I do believe that you could use the martial arts as part of a spiritual journey, but I think it would need to be done very carefully, and will probably require some serious work outside the dojo/kwoon/gym/whatever.

The Martial Arts/Spiritual Connection

Popular mythology aside, it is not a foregone conclusion that the martial arts have any particular connection with spirituality or spiritual practices. Western boxing, for example, has no explicit connection with the Christian tradition that was dominant in the society that created it. Sure, you could find some very devout boxers of various faiths, but I've never heard of anyone who sought a better understanding of Jesus through boxing.

In many arts, the connection between spiritual practices and fighting seems to be tangential, and mostly a product of the culture, not the art. Muay Thai fighters, for example, perform a series of rituals prior to fighting that are derived from the Theravada Buddhist tradition. That same tradition tells us that it's rude to place the bottom of your foot on someone's face, which leads to the odd (to outsiders) situation where it's perfectly okay to concuss someone with your shin, but if you teep them in the face, you're a jerk. The spiritual tradition informs the fighting method (or at least, the etiquette around the fighting method), but the fighting method isn't necessarily meant to inform the spiritual tradition. Muay Thai isn't meant to help you grow as a's meant to be a method of fighting.

"Just because we're fighting doesn't mean you need to be uncivil about it!". (from
From what I've seen, read, and gathered, this seems to be the larger truth about the relationship between spirituality and martial arts: most of it is tangential. Occasionally, you will get warriors or fighters who discover a spiritual path, and look back on their fighting experiences to inform that path, but very few arts seem to have truly been built with the purpose of developoing spiritual knowledge.

There are exceptions. Aikido, for example was very clearly connected to Ueshiba Sensei's experiences with the Omoto-Kyo. The Shaolin arts were clearly linked to a specific Buddhist monastery, though I'm not well-versed in or knowledgeable enough about those arts to know how much Buddhism was actually included in the teaching of the art itself. These are exceptions, however, not the rule.

Spiritual Qualifications

My sister-in-law is a Rabbi. Earning that title, and right, required a lot of schooling, including a Master's degree in her chosen field. Becoming a priest in various Christian faiths appear to have similar stringent requirements. According to this Washington Post article from 2010, there currently are no standards for becoming an imam in the US, but the expectation among many is apparently that you speak fluent Arabic and have memorized the Koran. Becoming a Buddhist monk is no mean feat either.

Suffice it to say, in any religious or spiritual tradition, there is a lot of groundwork that is required to be considered a leader in that community. It's not just something you do for the heck of it.

Martial arts teachers generally don't receive that kind of training...not even close. Most of what most martial artists learn about spirituality (and damn near everything else) is through oral tradition, passed along in conversation with classmates or teachers. Occasionally, a dedicated student or instructor might seek out a book or two on a spiritual tradition relevant to their art, but often times, they'll seek out information that isn't even directly connected. If a lot of the spiritual wisdom that martial arts teachers spout sounds like it came out of the movies, it's because that is not infrequently where the wisdom came from.

I don't mean this to suggest that martial arts instructors can't be wise, spiritual, or both, but it isn't a job requirement.

Seeking a Spiritual Mentor

What does all of this mean for the aspiring martial arts student? Some thoughts to consider:

What Tradition?

Is there a specific spiritual tradition that piques your interest? Do you find something fascinating about the Buddhist quotes you've seen floating on the Internet? Do you have a dog-eared copy of the Tao Te Jing that you keep referring to? Have you spent hours in Bible study, looking for guidance on how to live your life? Do you have a tradition in mind at all? If not, figuring that out might be a good place to start.

What Is It That You're Hoping To Learn?

If you are looking for some kind of spiritual development or awakening...what are you looking for? I realize that can be a rather complex question, but it's worth considering. If you're going to start down this road, it might be worth considering where you're trying to end up.

Do You Really Need a Martial Art?

In many cities in the United States, it's possible to find authentic teachers of many different spiritual traditions. They may have no interest in the martial arts, but they may be able to give you far more accurate guidance on how to pursue your interest in that tradition. If nothing else, they may be able to help you understand how to find a martial art that integrates appropriately in that spiritual tradition.

Is There An Art That Is Authentically Connected To Your Spiritual Tradition?

As I noted above, the connecting between martial arts and spirituality gets a bit overblown sometimes. That said, if you have a particular tradition that you want to explore, finding an art directly, or even indirectly connected to the tradition you're interested in makes sense. (As an aside, no, Krav Maga is not connected to Judaism. Pet peeve, sorry.)

Is There A Teacher Willing to Help You With This Journey?

Assuming such an art exists, is it taught near you? And if so, how does the teacher react to the idea that you're coming to them seeking spiritual growth? It's worth noting that too much enthusiasm could be just as much of a red flag as little or none. While you don't want a teacher who dismisses your goals as ludicrous or unrealistic, neither do you want one who promises you enlightenment in ten easy steps.

Is This Teacher Qualified to Help You?

Assuming you find a teacher of an art connected to the spiritual tradition that interests you...what qualifications does she have to help you on that path? Is she an ordained priest? A deeply educated lay practitioner? Or does her knowledge come from old Kung Fu episodes and Matrix quotes?

Red Flags

Overblown claims

Just as you should be wary of excessive claims when it comes to self-defense training (or anything else, really), you should be wary of gurus who promise easy paths to enlightenment, or access to secrets that no one else can teach you.

Cult-like behavior

This list, taken from, is pretty solid. If the school you're checking into seems to fit these criteria, be careful. The tendency to try and control your movements and associations, as well as to try and get money from you for advancement, are both pretty commonly seen in martial arts, particularly those with a cultish bent.
  • Single charismatic leader.
  • People always seeming constantly happy and enthusiastic. Especially if you discover that they have been told to act that way for the potential new recruits.
  • Instant friends.
  • If you are told who you can or cannot talk to or associate with.
  • They hide what they teach.
  • Say they are the only true group, or the best so why go anywhere else.
  • Hyped meetings, get you to meetings rather than share with you.
  • Experiential rather than logical.
  • Asking for money for the next level.
Final Thoughts

If it seems like this post is down on pursuing spiritual development, it's not. If you have a need and desire to do so, by all it!

However, in doing so, be aware that many, many cult and cult-like leaders have used the martial arts reputation for spirituality as a way to ensnare good, well-meaning people into their clutches. Tread carefully here.

1 comment:

Maija said...

See ..I think when people say they are seeking the 'spiritual' they are actually trying to find a path to learn how not to be afraid, how to be spontaneous, and act appropriately (read: never make mistakes) in their lives.

Many get spiritual advancement through meditation, reading, yoga ... a bunch of stuff that is not martial, so it has to be something to do with conflict and fear that drives people to find it here.

Back in the day, I think the two definitely had connection, but as has been pointed out, fighters often ended up in monasteries in later life through default, not by choice - same with bandits and other outlaws on the run - great place to hide or 'start over' no questions asked.

Now, I have no doubt that intense life threatening experiences can bring you to a place of 'enlightenment' (though not necessarily), but most don't want to travel the actual path .... just get the outcome of it without the journey. and to be perfectly honest this path is not even an option for the vast majority in this day and age.

Anyway, I guess there is something singular about direct conflict - you + an opponent - that people recognize as something they want to understand ...both about themselves, what they are capable of etc, and how to prevail against an other .....

Thing is they only THINK they want it, they like the idea of it, but few want to find their limitations, so when the snake oil salesmen present the 'peaceful warrior' path, with little chance of failure, error or loss ... it's almost an irresistable lure to the insecure and afraid ....