In today’s society, which is supposedly more civilized, structured and ordered than in any time in recorded history, the concept of what martial arts is and the entire premise behind training in the marital arts (at least from a Chinese standpoint) is completely confused and befuddled. Today everyone is enthralled and enamored with the gladiatorial combat situations that are prevalent on pay-per-view, television and video games. It permeates the entire culture. This is actually kind of sad. If you have a real understanding of what it must have been like to live in a feudal society when most martial arts were codified, it was just about fighting to survive. That’s where martial art training changes, when it moves away from the base understanding of kill or be killed. It is ingrained and injected with the philosophical ideas that are supposed to be part of a civilization that is aspiring to grow and become more – a civilization that seeks to empower its citizens with a better understanding of oneself and one’s world, and how they are intertwined.
But getting back to the topic of the art of war… Today we use the term Kung Fu, which is not actually the proper term for Chinese martial arts (but that’s a discussion for another time). The real term itself is 武術Mo Sut or, in Mandarin, Wu Shu, which, roughly translated, means “war arts” or “martial arts.” Let’s just take a look at one component of the term, “martial” or “war.” A lot of people don’t understand that Kung Fu itself is inextricably linked to the Chinese culture. If you want to study an Asian martial art, in this case the Chinese martial arts, you have to embrace and embody the culture; that includes the language (written and/or spoken), the philosophy, the poetry, the music, the food, the idiosyncrasies. Everything that makes up the Chinese culture is embedded in their martial arts. When we study the Chinese martial arts, we can learn a lot from their language forms, in this instance the written form. All the calligraphy characters are pictograms. Each symbol is not a letter or a word, but rather, a graphic explanation of a concept. If we take a look at the character for “martial,” Mo or Wu, and break it down into its individual strokes, then you’ll understand that the true essence of the calligraphy character Mo means “to stop the fighting.” (https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/武…)
When you learn the martial arts, it’s NOT teaching you how to become more barbaric, wild, and self-serving. It’s not teaching you to become a street fighter. Rather, it’s asking you, through the practice of this seemingly violent art form, to raise yourself up and become a better individual. Through fighting, learn how NOT to fight. Through conquering yourself and your ego, learn NOT to bring war or fighting into society, but rather learn to become the hero that you’re supposed to be. Learn to raise up your standard and not fight. Because you learn how to fight, you start to develop a greater appreciation for how easy it is to hurt, maim or kill somebody, but to heal them, make them whole again or bring them back from the dead is impossible. You learn to have reverence for life and respect for one another. Even though you have this weapon in your hand, you learn how to abstain from using it. Bruce Lee has been quoted many times as saying he practiced “the art of fighting without fighting.” From a philosophical standpoint, the fight is not with an aggressive opponent, but rather with the self.
I think a lot of people today miss this because they’re drawn to the most obvious attribute, and that’s the punch, the kick, the strike, the takedown, the chokehold and so on. A lot of us initially were drawn to the martial arts because of the prowess in physical hand-to-hand combat that we thought we would gain and therefor become masters of the universe. But when you examine it more closely, martial art training is not about that. There’s a certain level of maturity, sensibility and civilization that is involved in martial art training. Why did so many monastic orders adopt martial art training when their philosophical base is about going with the flow and being one with the way, or eradicating the selfishness and ego of the individual? Why would they adopt “war arts”? I feel that they saw something within the practice of the martial arts that would allow them to cycle up and become much, much, because martial arts is much more than just a hand-to-hand combat system.
I started thinking more in depth on this topic last week when one of my Facebook friends, a very nice individual, shared one of the many videos and blogs that I put out on a weekly basis. He was inclined to share it on a Facebook group, and another individual took the chance to jump onto the thread, and comment that martial arts can’t really be used on the street and is no match for a club or a gun. I hear and read these types of comments on a regular basis, but in my opinion, this is missing the whole point.
We that are involved in the martial arts, the traditional martial arts that are taught with respect and honor even for your enemy, understand that the usefulness of it is not in the physical art itself but rather in the practitioner that practices it. That practitioner must fully embrace his art form with its philosophy and its moral and ethical standards in order to become that well-rounded martial artist. You may be very good at punches and kicks and throws and takedowns and any technique that you want to rattle off, but that still doesn’t make you a martial artist. That just makes you a fighter, good or bad.
What really personifies a true martial artist in the traditional mindset, be it Kung Fu, Karate, Judo or another traditional form, is the artist that embraces 武德 Mo Duk, martial virtue. That statement in and of itself almost seems like a contrast. You’re martial and yet you have virtue. You’re a warrior, yet you have moral standards. You have a philosophical and ethical code that you follow, that in today’s society is lacking. Feudal China and feudal Japan, thought to be more war-like, less civilized societies followed this ethical code, but in our more modern, technological society we seem to lack this philosophy. So, I want to ask you the question, who is more civilized? Name me a dozen philosophers from the last hundred years. I can’t do it. Yet I can easily name a dozen ancient Chinese or ancient Greek philosophers. Why? Today, society at large doesn’t hold these virtues on a high pedestal. It is the responsibility of the martial art teacher to uphold these values.
If you go into most traditional Chinese martial arts schools, they have a shrine, an ancestral altar, with a statue, painting or picture of General Kwan. He’s the god of war in the Chinese pantheon, but this individual was a living, breathing individual during the Three Kingdoms period. Why is he revered and honored? It’s not just because of his martial prowess, but because of this individual’s understanding of right and wrong, what is good, what should be done, what is the right and/or righteous thing to do. Time and time again, he was tested to see how loyal he was, how honorable he was, how respectful he was, and he faltered not once. This is why we honor him. This is why we look up to him and ask him for guidance and protection within the Chinese martial arts. These kinds of concepts can be a hard crossover for our westernized American mentality, and many individuals may not want to adopt them. That’s their personal viewpoint and way, but in doing so they lose out, because they never get to learn what martial arts training is all about. You’re just learning a purely physical art. There’s no catalyst for change, no catalyst to better the individual, without the philosophical concepts and understanding of the martial virtue behind the martial art.
When the students enters the martial art training hall, he bows to the ancestral altar to show respect, honor, caring, genuineness. I see none of this in today’s society. Yet this is what’s personified in that character for “Martial,” be it martial arts or martial virtue. It’s about stopping the fighting. Learn Kung Fu to stop the fighting, i.e. to SAVE society from burning itself down, which is what our society is doing on so many different levels even as we speak. Children don’t respect their parents; parents don’t respect their parents; students don’t respect teachers; teachers don’t respect students. There’s just a giant level of disrespect; it’s like a plague. The simple act of bowing and showing respect is seen as “weak.” The Facebook commentator asks, Why don’t you just beat them up? But it is this lack of respect, humanitarianism and genuine care for other individuals that is why society is the way it is. If this is your outlook, you actually don’t train in martial arts. You’re just a thug, a brawler. You may be the best fighter on the block, but there’s always somebody better than you. There’s always somebody who can kick your ass. That’s not what martial art training is about.
First and foremost, martial art training is about stopping the fighting from within and without, making you a better individual, and therefor a better cog in society overall. You may say, “Sifu, everything’s on a downward spiral and there’s no way we can stop it.” I want to take the side of disagreeing and say, we can change it one person at a time through martial art training. At the very least, I can make an impact on my students when they enter the school. Even if they never become “good” at Kung Fu, at least I will try to help them become the best person they can be, with respect, honor and concern for their fellow mankind. If you don’t have that, you have nothing. You may have all the championship belts and trophies, but you’re still a loser. Just cranking out fighters with no philosophy is not for me. The reason why everybody loves a hero isn’t because he beats everybody up, but because he saves the day. If you want to save the day, you have to first start to save yourself. How can you do this? Through martial arts training.
-Sifu Paul Koh