Asian martial arts have a distinctive “flavor,” so to speak. The western counterparts of boxing and wrestling place foremost emphasis on technical skill and winning in the ring, but little mention, if any, of the need for good character and proper conduct outside the ring. In many Asian martial art schools, however, character and conduct form core elements of training. Asian martial traditions reflect cultural standards based on Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist concepts of just, wise and moral conduct.
Also, Taoist traditions form the basis of more esoteric teachings, such as the development of internal power and spiritual power, concepts peculiar to Asian martial arts.
People with religious convictions in the Judeo-Christian tradition will define “spiritual power” in terms of their own religious doctrines. While these concepts of spirituality may exclude much of the Asian mysticism, there are definitive parallels in the moral and ethical teachings. To examine these parallels should only serve to reinforce one’s own moral and ethical standards. Likewise, modern science offers no confirmation for the existence of ki, the fundamental element of “internal power,” but many phenomena attributed to internal power are real. Informed opinion may differ as to the cause, but the effects can be readily demonstrated. To explore the effective application of internal power concepts, one need not believe whole-heartedly in the lore. It’s good to be open-minded, and equally fine to be skeptical.
In fact, I’m quite skeptical myself. I have no faith in the dogmatic assertions of Asian mysticism and metaphysics. Further, I’ve seen firsthand the practical shortcomings of Asian martial ways that endeavor to make character development a “primary goal” of martial training. But nonetheless, I admire certain Asian traditions for their positive value. In order to truly understand a martial art, one should have a fundamental grasp of its philosophical underpinnings—and that includes at least a nominal understanding of the cultural heritage from which it is derived. But most importantly, in the words of Bob Orlando: “…where there are no positive traditions, negative ones appear.”1
In teaching a martial art, we endow students with tools of violence. Tradition dictates that we also inculcate the self-control to use violence wisely. It’s a tradition worth preserving.
Please take note that I don’t claim to be an authority on Asian culture. My knowledge comes mainly from tertiary sources. Also, a definitive exposition is beyond the scope of this essay. My descriptions of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist doctrines are superficial and incomplete. Students who desire a more thorough treatment should pursue their own study of these subjects.
Latin-trained scholars of Europe translated the name of K’ung-fu-tze—K’ung the master, as his disciples called him—to Confucius. He was born at Ch’ufu, in the kingdom of Lu, which is now the province of Shantung, in 551 BC. He was a scholar, and was said to be skilled in archery and music. At the age of twenty-two, he began a career as a teacher. He used his home as a schoolhouse and charged whatever modest tuition his pupils could afford. His curriculum consisted of history, poetry and the rules of propriety. He taught by word of mouth, much like Socrates, sharpening his students’ wits by exposing their fallacies through discussions designed to challenge their intellect and reason. He began with only a few pupils, but over the course of years, as many as three thousand young men studied with him.
As word of his intellectual prowess spread, nobles of the local aristocracy began to seek his counsel. Eventually, he was appointed to be chief magistrate of the town of Chung-tu. Legends abound of the wonders he wrought during his career in government, though many of these accounts are likely exaggerated. Aristocrats from neighboring states who were jealous of the prosperity in the kingdom of Lu conspired to alienate the Duke of Lu from Confucius. The duke was seduced through bribes to neglect affairs of state to such an extent that Confucius, who taught that the first principle of good government is good example, felt compelled to resign his government post.
He lived in exile for thirteen years, wondering homeless with a few disciples from province to province. When Duke Gae succeeded to the throne of Lu, he invited Confucius to return. Confucius accepted, and spent his final years in seclusion, devoted to the task of editing the Chinese classics and writing a history of his people.
His written legacy consists of the first five volumes of the Nine Classics. The volumes are known as the “Five Ching,” or Canonical Books, which were written or edited in his own hand. These were compilations of classic texts arranged and embellished with his own interpretations and commentaries. The first volume was the Li- Chi, or Record of Rites, which records the ancient rules of propriety that Confucius felt were necessary for the refinement of personal character and the maintenance of social order and peace. The second volume comprised his commentaries on the I-Ching, a book on metaphysics. Third, he compiled the Shi-Ching or Book of Odes, which addressed the nature of human life and principles of morality. The fourth volume was the Ch’un Ch’iu, a brief history of his native state of Lu. In the fifth volume, the Shu-Ching, or Book of History, he presented a didactic account of the early emperors of China, selecting events that would serve to illustrate how leaders should act—that is, with unselfishness and heroism.
Confucius advocated loyalty to the state, filial duty to one’s parents, veneration of ancestors and strict adherence to established codes of propriety and morality. He saw this sort of virtuous conduct as the foundation of society. His doctrine demanded stoic and puritanical devotion to virtue. Education was the key to clarity and honesty of thought, which in turn led to regulation of disorderly desires, and that, in turn, would guide men to lead their families, and rulers to lead their nations, by the silent power of example. Knowledge, sincerity and example would yield spontaneous social order. Humanity and justice would prevail when a nobleman behaved nobly, when a father was fatherly and when a son was a filial.
Confucius died in 479 BC. During the centuries following his death, the popularity of his philosophy among scholars and noblemen increased. Scholarship in Confucian doctrine became requisite knowledge for those seeking public employment. Many schools were established to teach the Master’s philosophy as handed down by his disciples. These schools were the intellectual centers of China, and they survived even during periods of political upheaval. Adherents of a rival school, known as the “Legalists,” sought to undermine the influence of Confucian thought. The emperor Shi Huang-ti, at the behest of his Legalist prime minister, attempted to suppress Confucianism and ordered, in 213 BC, that all Confucian literature be burned. Inspired by their enmity with the emperor, men hid the forbidden texts; some died as martyrs to protect them.
When the short-lived dynasty of Shi Huang-ti ended, the emperor Wu Ti restored Confucianism to its former preeminence. From that point forth, Confucian philosophy dominated Chinese culture. According to Will Durant:
The history of China might be written in terms of that influence. For generation after generation the writings of the Master were the texts of official schools, and nearly every lad who came through those schools had learned those texts by heart. The stoic conservatism of the ancient sage sank almost into the blood of the people, and gave to the nation, and to its individuals, a dignity and profundity unequaled elsewhere in the world or in history. With the help of this philosophy China developed a harmonious community life, a zealous admiration for learning and wisdom, and a quiet and stable culture which made Chinese civilization strong enough to survive every invasion, and to remould every invader in its own image. Only in Christianity and in Buddhism can we find again so heroic an effort to transmute into decency the natural brutality of men.2
Subsequent generations of scholars diluted or embellished the Master’s original teachings. Though Confucius deemed it a matter of propriety to observe the traditional rites of ancestor worship, his doctrine espoused no metaphysical or supernatural ideologies. (The sources I’ve read mention his commentaries on the I-Ching, but cite nothing of the content.) He made occasional mention of “Heaven” and prayer, but when his students questioned him on theological matters, he would either ignore the question, or redirect the discussion to matters of life and morality. As he told one student: “To give one’s self earnestly to the duties due to men, and, while respecting spiritual beings, to keep aloof from them, may be called wisdom.” Modern historians regard him as agnostic, or even atheist. Even so, some see his doctrine as a philosophical extension of the ancient Chinese theology of ancestor worship. And though the Master himself avoided issues of metaphysics and the supernatural, Confucianism evolved over time into the Chinese national religion. The Chinese never regarded Confucius as a god, but temples were dedicated to him in every important town, his texts were engraved in stone, people were enjoined to revere his image, and government officials led rites in his honor.
Dilution of the original ideals and corruption of the doctrine with supernaturalism and metaphysics served the ruling class well. One may surmise that, for members of China’s immense civil bureaucracy, it was easier to expound on the doctrine than to provide the exemplary conduct it required. Inclusion of supernatural beliefs increased the popularity of the doctrine among the ignorant masses, who otherwise would have found the intellectual concepts beyond their ken. To have the masses subscribe to a religion that espoused loyalty and obedience as virtues made them easier to control.
To dwell upon the corruption of his doctrine, however, is to ignore the substance of what he taught.
Confucian philosophy was prim and rigid, stifling to natural impulses and dismissive of the need for pleasure or adventure. It was distinctly anti-feminist, and has further been criticized as being “as hostile to progress as it was favorable to peace.” On the positive side, however, it provided a definitive code of morality—which in fact has become the basis of most Asian legal systems. Confucius believed in the propriety of performing ancient rites—but most importantly, he taught that the effectiveness of the rite depended upon the spirit in which it was performed. Without morality and virtue, knowledge of rituals is worthless.