The Martial Arts as spiritual and psychological disciplines

Warrior of the spirit


The exigencies of combat place great demands on the capacities of the warrior. These demands can act as powerful learning situations for self-discovery and self-confrontation, and may be used to further the spiritual endeavor.

Perhaps the most important of these is the confrontation with death. We are all confronted with death in each loss or change in our lives, but such confrontations we can easily evade, dealing perhaps with the specific change without coming to grips with the principle of change which implies our personal death.

We shall all be confronted one day with our own deaths in the most direct and powerful way - but this will usually be a sudden, rather irrevocable and inconvenient event, of little use (from the point of view of this lifetime) in a training programme.

All spiritual systems set up a confrontation with death; the basic preparatory practices of Buddhism involve the remembrance that one's life is short and of uncertain duration, that one may die tomorrow. In the Chod rite of Tibetan Buddhism, practicioners visit a Tibetan graveyard at night (where the corpses are left exposed to the elements and scavengers) and invite the demons to come and take them.

In the West, death is one of the great taboos; constant violence in films and on television negate the reality of death through constant repetition of stereotyped death scenes, and the media numb our imagination with accounts of deaths on a vast scale and under horrific circumstances. Paradoxically, this numbing of the appreciation of death also numbs the vivid appreciation of life. Those who take to danger sports (such as car-racing, mountaineering and sky-diving) often report recapturing a keen, fresh awareness of life and its beauties as a result of their brushes with death.

In the martual arts, of course, death is a constant presence. The whole activity revolves around it. Attack, defense and counter-attack are all performed as if a true life-or-death situation were involved. With proficiency, the vigour of the actions increases and, if one is using weapons, one may employ, for instance, a 'live' (naked) sword instead of a bamboo or wooden sword; all of which make the situation genuinely dangerous.

The confrontation with death is perhaps the most important element of spirituality.

First, death reveals the ego. That part of us which grasps and holds on, which attempts to crystallize the flow of life and box it into separate entities, is totally panicked by death. Fear is the basis of this holding and contracting, and death, or the thought of death, brings out this fear. In fact the fear we feel at the thought of death is not created by the situation but only brought out of hiding; it was there all along in our life, underlying all the rigidities, the pettinesses and the little neuroses (as well as the great neurosis which makes all of us think of ourselves as beings fundamentally separate from our environment and from other people). That fear, which is the lynch-pin holding the whole rigid structure in place, is revealed in the face of death, and can then be looked into and dealt with.

The fear of death is the greatest of obstacles for the martial artist. This fear has a quality of rigidity, or paralysis, or of loss of control; one may freeze with terror, or one may panic and react blindly and irrationally. Either reaction, intruding at the crucial moment in combat, will spell death, even for the technically accomplished fighter.

But freedom from this incapacitating fear releases great powers. There is a story of a Master of the Japanese Tea Ceremony from the province of Tasa - a man of no martial skill yet of great meditative and spiritual accomplishment. He accidentally gave offence to a high-ranking Samurai, and was challenged to a duel. He went to the local Zen Master to seek advice. The Zen Master told him frankly that he had little chance of surviving the encounter, but that he could ensure an honourable death by treating the combat as he would the formal ritual of the Tea Ceremony. He should compose his mind, paying no attention to the petty chatterings of thoughts of life and death. He should grasp the sword straightforwardly, as he would the ladle in the Tea Ceremony; and with the same precision and concentration of mind with which he would pour the boiling water onto the tea, he should step forward, with no thought of the consequence, and strike his opponent down in one blow.

The Tea Master prepared himself accordingly, abandoning all fear of death; when the morning of the duel arrived, the Samurai, encountering the total poise and fearlessness of his opponent, was so shaken that he promptly begged forgiveness and called off the fight.

The outcome of the fight, ahd it taken place, is by no means clear; technical skill could well have been overshadowed by the freedom and concentration of one who no longer feared death.

In the Buddhist tradition, the preparatory practices of the remembrance of death are regarded as being great motivators on the path; this is why they are essential. Awareness of the reality and inevitability of one's personal death can be a fantastic energizer, releasing unsuspected level of motivation for radical change. Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian teacher in Carlos Castaneda's books, makes the same point with great clarity and power. Don Juan was trying to tell Castaneda theat the remembrance of his death is of the utmost importance for the proper conduct of life, while Castaneda protested that it is meaningless to worry about one's death. Don Juan answered,

    'I didn't say that you have to worry about it'.
    'What am I supposed to do then?'
    'Use it. Focus your attention on the link between you and your death, without remorse or sadness or worrying. Focus your attention on the fact that you don't have time and let your acts flow accordingly. Let each of your acts be your last battle on earth. Only under those conditions will your acts have their rightful power. Otherwise they will be, for as long as you live, the acts of a timid man.'
    'Is it so terrible to be a timid man?'
    'No. It isn't if you are going to be immortal, but if you are going to die, there is no time for timidity, simply because timidity makjes you cling to something that exists only in your thoughts. It soothes you while everything is at a lull, but then the awesome, mysterious world will open its mouth for you, as it will open for every one of us, and then you will realize that your sure ways were not sure at all. Being timid prevents us from examining and exploiting our lot as men'.

The realization that one is to die and therefore has limited time can cut away an immense amount of pettiness and self-indulgence from one's life. All those thoughts people have all the time of death, regrets over wasted time and lost opportunities, over risks not taken and inertia given in to, all those 'if only I could do it over again' thoughts, can be brought into the present, before the opportunities are past, while the gates are still open, and can galvanize one to begin taking responsability for living a fulfilling life.

Death is the great changer, the one who ensures that things will not remain static, stagnant, fixed. In the evolution of life on earth, sexual reproduction makes its appearance at the same time as death. Continual, unchanging self-replication (as in the amoeba, which divides to produce identical copies of itself) is a zombie-like living death of sameness and stagnation; the freshness and newness of each individual born, who dies to make way for another unique being, is eternally changing life through death. As Christ says, he who tries to save his life shall lose it. The person who clings to the past form, thought or feeling, loses the ever-new spring-time quality of the unimpeded current of life.


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