By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved
In nearly every single martial art or fighting system some type of philosophy exists. The predominate fighting systems in existence are Asian in origin and therefore they come with an Asian philosophy, and that philosophy is either Buddhist or predominately Buddhist. While it is beyond the scope of this text to go into the history, dogma, and various teachings of Buddhism, I will mention that since Buddhism is a philosophy that teaches non-violence, martial arts that preach this philosophy are also non-violent in nature. Now, I am not saying that these fighting systems can not be violent or used in a violent manner, I'm saying that people that learn them are taught to both practice and use them in a non-violent manner.
There is a huge problem in adopting a philosophy of non-violence in a fighting system and that is that since fighting in its very nature is violent, non-violent violence is a recipe for making nothing happen. The goal of fighting is to cause injures and to cause the necessary injuries in another person it requires a measure of violence; however, if you are taught not to be violent, if you train to not be or use violence then it is very unlikely that you would have the necessary ability to cause the necessary injuries when you are faced with violence. In other words, if causing injuries to another person is necessary and doing so requires a measure of violence and you are trained to be "non-violent" you have a small chance of accomplishing what needs to be done.
Consider also that even though you may have adopted a certain philosophy it doesn't mean that an aggressor has adopted it too. If you have adopted a traditional martial arts philosophy of non-violence and some 19 year old gang-banger shoves a knife against your throat then there is a little bit of a disparity there. The fact that you have chosen to adopt certain rules doesn't mean that the gang-banger has done the same, and if he is trying to take your life then he doesn't share your philosophy and you are at a huge disadvantage. The fact that you have rules doesn't change the world, it just restricts your behavior.
Violence in and of itself is just a thing, it is not good nor bad, it just exists. Violence is kind of like yelling in that there are situations where it is appropriate and situations where it is not appropriate, and using it in situations where it is not appropriate yields undesirable results. While sport fighting is about besting someone with speed, size, strength, and skill, real fighting, which is surviving real acts of violence, is all about causing serious injury to your aggressor. If someone is dead set on seriously injuring or killing you, the only thing that will really change anything is injury. If they injure you then the situation changes in their favor, and if you injure them then the situation changes in your favor.
Bottom line: fighting IS violence and injury. Departing from that simple fact may make us feel better about ourselves but it does nothing other than hurt your effectiveness and chances for survival.
You can adopt all the non-violent philosophies you want but it will not change the facts of violence and injury. In a violent situation the one that survives is the one that is doing the violence. If you don't mentally prepare yourself to use violence then you'll be inhibited and most likely non-effective in a violent situation. If you don't train to use violence in your martial arts training then what you're actually doing is training in non-violence and then your chances of surviving a violent situation are lessoned.
To put things in perspective, while violence is only an appropriate response in an incredibly small percentage of situations, in a truly violent situation where your life is on the line then violence is the only appropriate response. If someone is trying to take your life than the situation IS violent and violence is the only response that will mean anything. Anything other than being violent and causing injuries is something that will not change things in your favor.
Violence is not good or bad, it simply exists. While using violence is rarely appropriate, in the times when you're faced with violence using violence is the only thing that will save your life.
So, how did moral philosophies get in fighting systems in the first place and why are they there?
Most of what people know about martial arts history is actually false, and historical investigation bares this out. There have been many people who have devoted their lives to researching the histories of martial arts and exposing the myths and frauds. One of the most famous was the legendary author Tang Hao (1897-1959 A.D.). Tang Hao was an author, historian, and martial artist who lived in China in the late 1800' and early 1900's. Like any serious martial artist, Tang Hao took the marital arts very seriously and he was distressed to see them become circus acts full of magic tricks and wild claims, so he and others spend years doing serious research, writing books, and trying to expose the truths and realities of the martial arts.
What Tang Hao and others discovered was that originally fighting systems had nothing to do with any philosophies or religions. If you went back in time a couple hundred years and asked a "master" about martial arts philosophy they'd look at you like you were crazy. The idea that using punches, kicks, throws, and leverages to injure someone would have a moral philosophical aspect was ridiculous. The martial arts were considered just a military practice and people looked to them and practiced them solely for combative purposes. Contrary to the story we have been told of wise Buddhist monks inventing martial arts and combining it with religion, the reality is that the wise, scholarly, and moral martial arts master that we fantasized about either didn't exist at all or was incredibly rare.
Without getting too much into history (you can look it up yourselves, read Tang Hao's books if you can find them, or read my article "The Shaolin Temple Myth") what happened is that around the mid 1800's China was invaded more and more by the west resulting in a drastic change in the economy and a change in social order with the wide availability of firearms. By 1880 colt pistols could be commonly found and less and less people were turning to martial arts for self-protection. The martial arts were losing their credibility in the new westernized China and martial arts instructors were losing students, their livelihoods, and their elevated social status.
The only way for the martial arts to survive and for "masters" to get their social status back was to reinvent the martial arts and make them attractive for the wealthy and the significantly more educated westerners. As it so happened there were a lot of extremely popular martial arts books circulating around that were the equivalent of dime store romance novels. These books were really propaganda put out by various rebel groups to sway people to them and their cause. They described warrior scholars, that of course belonged to their group, that were righteous, moral, wise, capable of seemingly impossible feats, and almost undefeatable in combat. These books were extremely popular and people really feel in love with the images they portrayed so the martial arts community decided to "just go with it".
"Masters" reinvented themselves as wise and righteous and began advertising that anyone studying under them could gain powers like those talked about in the books.
They started spouting Buddhism and quasi-Buddhism and trying to make studying martial arts special and magical. Often they used common magic tricks to make people think they had special "chi powers" and really they just put on a huge show. To get upper class students to enroll schools would lie, overstate, and bastardize their arts and instructors would lie about their arts history and lineage to make it more appealing. Most techniques were changed to make them large, flashy, and pretty and thus they lost most of their combat effectiveness. The result...it worked. The rich started practicing marital arts for the novelty, the chance to gain powers, and as a means to enlightenment. Even some westerners picked them up, although primarily for novelty reasons.
By 1900 more people in China practiced the martial arts for recreation than any other purpose. People didn't even practice the martial arts for health reasons until around 1915 when it was made popular through widely published martial art books. Any claim of morality or the developing of a person's character did not come about until the 1920's.
Before 1850 or so the marital arts had nothing to do with any moral philosophy or religion, then between 1850 to around 1920 the martial arts had to change purely for marketing reasons, and around 1920 they emerged as moral, wise, and mystical.
That's how moral philosophies got into martial arts but why are they still there? They're still there for many reasons, including the fact that we don't know any better. Very few people take the time to investigate the history of martial arts and the masses are quite happy to just take everything at face value. However, the two big reasons that they're there is because they give us prestige and allow us a degree of separation.
By claiming that fighting systems are righteous and moral and that by learning them you're learning something more valuable than self-defense elevates the practitioner and gives them status. It's a big deal to be a black belt and a huge deal to be a 4th, 5th, or 6th degree black belt, but if martial arts were just methods of using violence to cause injury then practitioners would be looked at more like soldiers instead of "masters" and potential "masters".
The other reason is that by adding a moral philosophy to the marital arts it allows us a degree of separation from the realities of violence and injury. Humans want to separate themselves from anything that they see as unpleasant and few things are more unpleasant than the thought, or action, of seriously injuring or killing another human being. If we say that we're going to go into a room and train to seriously injure or kill someone then that is incredibly unpleasant and socially unacceptable; but if we say that we're going to go into a room and train in the honorable and righteous martial arts and build our character then that's very pleasant and society gives us a pat on the back.
By giving violence and injury a moral philosophical component we separate and protect ourselves from its realities and that is far easier on our fragile minds, as well as our standing in society.
If you look at martial arts classes and how martial art techniques are done today you probably won't see actual violence anywhere and the intent to cause injury is almost totally absent. Go to a typical karate class and look at the way people throw punches and kicks, the intent to cause injury is generally nowhere to be seen. Talk to people about the realities of what will happen when that punch or kicks lands and you'll see them cringe and then change the subject to something more socially acceptable.
Since we are good upstanding moral people we want that barrier of protection between us and the blood and guts of violence and we work hard to keep it there. However, having it there and separating ourselves from the reality can detract from our ability to function in a violent situation and use violence to cause injury and save our lives.
So where does a moral philosophy appropriately fit into violence and injury?
The simple answer is before and after. You can have any moral philosophy you want to have before the violent situation begins. When the situation begins, and before people start attacking each other, you can try to deal with it in any socially acceptable manner you want, and with any moral philosophy you have. After the situation gets over with you can deal with it in accordance to whatever moral philosophy you have. However, the second physical violence begins you need to take whatever moral philosophy you have and put it on hold. When physical violence starts you need to realize that at that moment the only thing that matters is causing injuries...period.
If you think that a certain moral philosophy or dogma will save your soul than that's fine, but that is beyond the scope of this text and this method of training. What we're dealing with here is saving your ass, and the only way to save you ass is to solely focus on causing injuries now, and then let your morals deal with the feelings that come later.