Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Spirit and the Swordsman: the spiritual side of martial arts

Detail of a painting by Takahashi Deishu, friend of the more famous
Katsu Kaishu (and Yamaoka Tesshu). The calligraphy on this piece
(not shown) muses on the inevitability of death.

Asian martial arts have always had something of an air of mystery in the west, and part of that is their connection with the spiritual and religious traditions of their countries of origin. However, many people mistake these connections for spiritual content. Characteristics such as slowness and deliberateness of movement, exotic clothes, unfamiliar terminology, not to mention the age and ethnicity of practitioners, are sometimes taken as further evidence of spirituality. Of course, things are not so simple, and there are some hard questions to be asked about just what is 'spiritual' about martial traditions.

There are also those who dismiss the spiritual side completely, and perhaps this is a wise course. In many cases it has been overplayed - the connection between Zen and traditional Japanese martial arts is just one example - but still, there is something in Asian martial arts that lends itself to such misunderstandings, something that seems quite different from European traditions, and it might be that such an interest is not so terribly misplaced after all.

To examine this issue properly, you would have to look at:

-the nature of the spiritual traditions
-their role and status in society
-relationship by proximity,
-personal religious preferences of practitioners of martial arts
-the nature of the martial disciplines themselves

...at the very least.

Below are a few of the thoughts I have had on the subject:

The place of the 'spiritual' in society
Part of this difference must lie in the difference in religious traditions between Europe and East Asia. The Christian tradition was, historically speaking, militantly monotheistic and intolerant, both of other religions and variations of its own teachings. Religious practice was organised and centred on the church. Alternative spiritual practices were forbidden. Usually on pain of torture, death, or some combination of the two.

This led to a comparatively narrow definition of what constituted 'spiritual' practices.

In the far-east (I am most familiar with China and Japan, but much of this is quite general) a number of different religious and spiritual practices were tolerated and practiced in geographically close communities - often within a single community. Not only did differing schools of each particular religion co-exist, but also different religions. This allowed extensive cross-fertilisation, and the development of collateral disciplines. Many of these were concerned, to some degree, with the use and development of particular mental states, breathing, concentration etc., some of which had obvious value to the warrior. Whether or not these were directly absorbed, the higher levels of bugei were also concerned with 'inner' factors that gave the warrior access to superior performance. It is safe to say that whatever the relationship between these two sets of skills, those involved in spiritual practices were more likely to have developed a vocabulary to describe and help pass on this knowledge. Much in the way that scientific terms have become generally used in society today, terms stemming from religious/spiritual practice were adopted by bugei, and often appear in writings on the subject. This does not mean that the arts were directly influenced by the practices, but to an outsider, this may appear to be the case.

Another factor that seems relevant is the role of religious buildings in community life. Markets, festivals, village meetings - all of them could be held within temple or shrine precincts. In Japan, larger temples were also used for a variety of civic and private functions, including lodging visiting dignitaries, makeshift barracks for military forces, artist's studios, dance performances, administrative centres and so on. They were also ideal places for the practice of martial arts. Even the simplest temple or shrine in Japan would include a flattened area of beaten down earth that would make a suitable practice area. Unlike western churches and cathedrals, temples and shrines usually consisted of a number of discrete structures within the grounds, with plenty of open space in between. Many included sub-temples which themselves consisted of a series of buildings. This physical organisation was highly suitable for the promotion of a whole range of activities that might have no direct connection with the teachings of the temple/shrine itself, and brings us to the subject of proximity.


The Japanese martial traditions have grown up in close proximity to religious practices, and the creation of fixed kata or forms, may even have originated as ritual dances performed at Shinto shrines. The oldest traditions seems to have been passed on within families of shrine officials, and there are many accounts of the founders of different traditions going into seclusion in shrines or temples to refine their arts. 

Additionally, (especially, but not exclusively, in the latter part of the Edo period and the beginning of Meiji), there were several influential figures who practiced Zen alongside their swordsmanship. Other swordsmen were of other religious or philosophical persuasions - although this may have coloured their teachings, it doesn't necessarily imbue the arts with spiritual content. The terminology and/or conceptual underpinnings of their preferred spiritual disciplines may have been used a means of explaining concepts within the art - which could lead to some confusion for those familiar with the art chiefly from writings on it.
Katsu Kaishu, an important political figure of the Meiji Restoration,
swordsman and Zen practitioner, brushed this: 理事忘遠心 : Mind far away, theory and practice forgotten.
(Courtesy of/robynbuntin.com)

Much of this seems to have been taken as evidence of spiritual content, and as we are separated by several hundred years, it is difficult to view it from an accurate perspective, but I think it would be safer to say that it speaks of proximity, rather than evidence that martial disciplines can function as vehicles for spiritual development.


The 'spiritual' in the arts
Morally ambivalent swordsmanship is the subject of 'The Sword of Doom'.

Of course, the very terminology used by the arts does much to reinforce the impression of spiritual content, and certainly much of it does refer to the mysterious world of the mental and subconscious. Concepts such as will, spirit, ki, hara, do indeed speak of something beyond the physical - but this does not make it spiritual, however nice it might be to think so.

However, training these qualities might have benefits beyond the merely practical realm of fighting, and this is what the early developers of the modern budo disciplines clearly felt. Practicing these arts brings about valuable changes in behavioural/psychological/emotional areas, even if these are by-products - it is clear that writers in 18th century Japan recognized this and were trying to position swordsmanship as something more than just a practical skill for fighting. We can see several works that criticize swordsmanship of other schools as 'animalistic' or 'savage' - which was Neo-Confucian terminology for learning which was not concerned with moral development on a Confucian path - as well as arguments that show how swordsmanship can be a vehicle for this kind of development - the Great Path - leading towards enlightenment or sagehood.

Interestingly, at least one writer also argued that although swordsmanship was, in itself, a minor art, the same could also be said for sutra reading and meditation. Simply engaging in mechanical tasks would not lead to spiritual development, but that once one was on a spiritual path, any discipline could be practiced as a vehicle for furthering development on the path.

On the other hand...

... any path is what you make it.

As Shimada Toranosuke (incidentally the teacher of Katsu Kaishu, whose calligraphy is shown above) famously put it... 'The sword is the mind; if the mind is not correct, the sword will not be correct. To study the sword, first study the mind.' This 'mind' is the Japanese kokoro, a concept that resists exact definition, but which lies close to the root of much of Japanese thinking. Sometimes translated as 'heart-mind', it is often set in opposition to the intellect, and contains elements of feeling and sub-concious processes. There is even something of a moral element in it. In the sense that spiritual teachings also, ultimately, aim to affect the kokoro, this does offer support to claims of spiritual content in the martial arts, but once again, I would think it safer to say that there are parallels and points of intersection, rather than make any grandiose claims. 


For film buffs, of course, Shimada Toranosuke, played by Mifune Toshiro, and the amoral killer, Ryunosuke meet in The Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu Tōge), giving an interesting look at the role of skill and morality in the sword. For those of you who have always wondered what happens after the final frame of the movie, you might like to know that there were at least two other film versions of the same film. These were trilogies, with Part One of both covering the same story as The Sword of Doom. Parts 2 & 3 cover the further adventures of Ryunosuke. Oh, and of course the novel on which it was based runs to about 20 volumes. I believe the author died before he had brought it to a conclusive finish...but I digress....

2 comments:

  1. I have been working through your blog from the first post over the last month few months and I am thoroughly enjoying your work; I'll be picking up you book shortly.

    You bring up an excellent point about the multiple uses that temples served in Japan. This continues today in many North American religious buildings that have gymnasiums or reception halls attached (I assume this is most likely the case in other continents as well). These rooms often serve as community spaces for various events that have little or nothing to do with the buildings' religious affiliation. Today, it seems so obvious that members of the local dart club, for example, aren't throwing darts as a means of religious or spiritual practice.

    Of course, in a historical sense it may be challenging to differentiate specific connections between activities, especially in times when the participants of the various activities were the same people.

    It serves as a good example of the importance of perspective and hints at how easily myth and fantasy can emerge when studying subjects without the 'whole picture' in view.

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