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How Can Training in Violence Make You Peaceful?

Martial arts training is moving meditation that forces you into the present.

Key points

  • Martial arts involve training in violent self-defense applications.
  • Training in self-defense requires presence in the present.
  • Living in the present movement is a key part of mindfulness.
  • A focus on mindfulness produces calm and reduces the need for violence.

Wise Warrior Sage

We've all seen the example of the wise sage practicing martial arts with the peaceful facial expression and graceful movements. While there are many examples of patterns of movements and forms that one could imagine giving rise to the mindfulness that underlies philosophical approaches to life, there are extraordinarily brutal and violent practices included in most martial arts.

Self-defense applications are by their very nature violent. They are taken up when all other avenues have failed. You've been unable to talk your way out, or avoid a situation, or run away. Now you have to settle the solution and stop the threat yourself through physical means. Many of the examples of martial art applications for self-defense are extraordinarily brutal. They involve applying large forces quickly to the weakest parts of the opponent's body in an effort to incapacitate and stop the threat.

A Fist In Your Face Is In the Present Tense

Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) was Japan's most famous swordsman. He was undefeated in 60 duels and fought in the bloody battle of Sekigahara. Yet he lived his later life as a "kensei" "sword saint", calligrapher, philosopher, author, and Zen adept. How did such violence produce a peaceful disposition?

This is where the paradox of martial arts training comes up. Most folks who train in legitimate martial arts are peaceful, and do not engage in reckless violence despite their extensive training. How can we rationalize this?

We do so by considering what both meditation as we find in Zen practice and which is commonly associated with many martial arts traditions and martial arts applications have exclusively in common--living in the present moment. Being in the present moment clarifies our thought processes and thinking. It leads to a calmer state of mind that is not competing with thoughts of before or after.

There's no room for thinking about what happened before or what will occur later when you are focused exclusively on now.

When it comes to violence, it's the methodology of training in martial arts for peace. The key things are the process and the effort involved, not the actual thing you're doing. This is why effort is so important for everything and also why you can have peace through learning to be a master of tea ceremony, martial arts or calligraphy and more.

Back to the Shaolin Temple

The venerated Shaolin Temple with both it's real and mystical origins used martial arts as a way towards peaceful enlightenment. In his book "The Shaolin Monastery" (2008) Meir Shahar quotes a martial arts text from Shaolin in 1610 saying "Shaolin monks who specialize in hand combat, do so in order to transform it, like the staff, into a vehicle for reaching the other shore of enlightenment." A clear case of separating the concept of the method and its intentions from the methodology used to achieve it.

Shahar points out that Shaolin monks did not practice hand combat because it was martially effective. Because weapons including the firearms and swords that were available would have been much more useful. Instead they practiced "a unique synthesis of martial, therapeutic, and spiritual goals. Practitioners were no longer interested in fighting only. They were motivated instead by considerations of health at the same time as they sought spiritual realization."

A focus on self cultivation and peace was key. The martial arts in this sense become a practice for preserving life. In fact a book outlining empty hand combat training published in 1858 by Pan Weiru was called "Essential Techniques of Guarding Life." This book outlined basic physical practices of martial arts as a training paradigm.

Just as with anything else in life, the issue is really how the martial arts are practiced not what is actually trained. The method and the journey towards skill is the way in which peace and transcendent mindfulness are achieved. The methodology is just a way to achieve the meaning. The thing about martial arts skill is that you never want to have to apply them. But if the need arises you know you will always, quite literally, have a fighting chance in any situation.

The true benefit of martial arts is to understand the difference between the method and the meaning. Studied appropriately, the confidence derived from martial arts allows a person to have controlled responses and to make better, calmer choices regardless of the situation.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2023)

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